Two years ago, the Committee on Science and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing to examine the relationship between federal science and engineering research, education and economic competitiveness. The committee, then headed by Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-N.Y., acknowledged that the sustained investments in research and education over the last 50 years spawned an abundance of technological breakthroughs that transformed American society and fueled a robust economy.
“We must continue to make those types of investments,” said a group of scholars during a symposium hosted by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.
Policymakers, business leaders and educators gathered in Northern Virginia for a three-day symposium to discuss how to best retain this country’s scientific and technological edge, a task NACME has coined the “New American Dilemma.”
While other nations such as China and India have recognized the connection between innovation and economic growth — and are pouring resources into their scientific and technological infrastructure — the United States has failed to prepare a new generation of scientists and engineers, particularly in communities of color, NACME asserts.
“The ‘New American Dilemma’ comes from this nation’s failure to educate and develop a growing proportion of its potential talent base — African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians — while its needs for people with skills in science and engineering are escalating,” said Dr. John Brooks Slaughter, president and CEO of NACME, noting that the term “American Dilemma” was first used by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in reference to race relations 60 years ago.
In 2007, the Bush administration passed the America Competes Act, authorizing new spending in math, science and technology for the remainder of the decade. Included in the legislation were initiatives to attract women and minorities to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through, for example, summer and after-school programs. The act also enables teachers from high-poverty schools to access college research seminars and instructional activities to assist them in the classroom.
Still, businesses representing nearly every industry are now calling on the federal government to do more to address this work force issue. Although the percentage of underrepresented minorities earning degrees in STEM fields has generally increased over the years, a recent NACME report illustrates that the gains are meager.
Only about 1.3 percent of the available pool of minority high school graduates earn engineering degrees from America’s colleges and universities each year. The percentage of bachelor’s degrees in engineering awarded to Black students between 1995 and 2005 declined. In 1995, engineering degrees accounted for 3.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black graduates, by 2005 this number decreased to 2.5 percent, the report reveals.
Even more alarming, said Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of the company that is now Lockheed Martin Corp., is that “China currently graduates more English-speaking engineers than the United States.
“In the year 2000, the number of foreign students studying physical sciences and engineering surpassed the number of U.S. graduate students. Sixty percent of U.S. patents originate in Asia. There are now 12 energy companies in the world with reserves greater than Exxon Mobil. IBM recently sold its most promising PC business to the Chinese,” Augustine said.
Augustine, like many in attendance at the NACME conference, cited several problems in K-12 education for the decline in American innovation.
“Seventy percent of K-12 teachers teaching math and science have no background in math or science. By the fourth grade, students are turned off by math and science. By international standards, our children are failing,” he said.
According to NACME, in 2002 690,000 minority students graduated from high school, but only about 28,000 had taken the necessary math and science courses to fully qualify for engineering studies.
Craig Barrett, chairman of the board for the Intel Corp., said another challenge is the disconnect between higher education and K-12 education.
“By any objective measure our university system is the best in the world. How can the university system be so great and the K-12 system be not so great?” Barrett asked.
“The university system offers competitive admissions, salaries based on performance and high expectations,” he concluded.
Educational paradigms have to change if the United States is to remain competitive, Barrett insisted. “We have a generation of brilliant minds that we cannot waste. You cannot leave our Black and Hispanic populations behind.”
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