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Educating to Narrow the Engineer Gap

Publication Date: 2006-08-02

August 2, 2006

San Francisco Chronicle

Here's a thoughtful and smart approach to helping students and their teachers develop technical competence. Even if he does resort to terms like the global playing field.

Not since Sputnik in 1957 has so much national attention been paid to the state of our science and technology education, from elementary to graduate school. Now before Congress for deliberation is the American Competitiveness Initiative, a bill that is designed to promote greater educational accomplishment and economic productivity. It is imperative that Congress complete the legislation next month, when they return from their August recess. Business and academic leaders are united in calling for action to target science, technology, engineering and math to strengthen our nation's workforce and consequently, our economy.

As someone long involved in educational policy, I am pleased by the renewed focus on education. However, I do not believe we have the right solutions for seeing to it that all of our students can compete on a level, global playing field.

The trouble is we have framed the problem almost exclusively on producing more scientists and engineers at the highest levels of academia without taking advantage of the accumulated wisdom of the last 50 years.

If the goal is to avoid job loss to other countries and produce the most Ph.D.s, we are entering an impossible race. Simple mathematics tells us we won't win by the numbers when our population is one-third of India's and one-fourth of China's. Similarly, strategies to encourage Ph.D.s, such as forgiving student loans and generating new scholarship programs for our most accomplished students heading for careers in science and technology, are not cost-effective. Prior studies show these have marginal impact on students not already on this course and are among the most expensive solutions per scientist or engineer gained.

I believe our primary goal must be to train the greatest majority of our citizens to be technically competent. Technical competency -- the critical analytical skills of mathematics and science -- is the key to job creation, to replace the jobs we are losing. These are not positions requiring terminal degrees. These are the entrepreneurs, plant technicians, medical workers, traders and politicians. Our most powerful asset as a nation is that we have tried for years to educate every student in mathematics and science, starting in elementary school, and have learned much from that experience, even in our failures.

Any recommendations to improve science and math education must reach deep inside every K-12 classroom. I don't mean turning toward the falsely reassuring facts-and-memorization methods that are passed off as science, but rather a fundamental change in most children's school science experience.

Our country traditionally produces the best basketball players in the world; Italy, the top soccer players; Finland, world-class musicians. In every case, these nations encourage all children at the youngest ages to play, even if they are not expected to be world-class professionals. The result is the broadest development of talent, which provides the strongest base for the pinnacles of excellence that these nations achieve.

Fostering our youth is key to why we must invest in the long-term, in the earliest grades and not necessarily worry about the number of scientists and engineers. If we worry about educating the total population, the problem of not enough American scientists and engineers will solve itself and the more significant benefit will be technical literacy across all job categories.

Where would I invest $10 billion to $20 billion more a year, as some politicians have suggested, given the chance? Among my top recommendations:

1. Provide for every teacher of mathematics and science a two-year intensive novice-teacher program, akin to our best medical residency programs, to develop and retain successful, competent educators.

2. Bring attention, experimentation and resources to community and technical-college education because many teachers start out in 2-year institutions and because remedial math courses prove to be the second-greatest killer of technical careers (after high-school algebra).

3. Seriously invest in curricula, student-learning assessments, innovative programs that work for ordinary teachers and students, not just the exceptional ones.

4. Use and support the "informal" education sector (museums, media and after-school programs) to motivate children and adults to engage in everyday questions about the natural and man-made world.

Universal science and technical literacy is as important for our economy as it is for our democracy. The democratization of scientific knowledge must remain our highest goal in funding and setting goals for our schools.

Dennis M. Bartels, a nationally known science education and policy expert, is the new executive director of the Exploratorium, a science education institution in San Francisco.

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