By Tom Still
MADISON – In 1975, the United States was third among all nations in the percentage of 18-to-24-year-olds who earned science and engineering degrees. Today, it ranks 17th, behind Taiwan and South Korea, Ireland and Italy. Unless that slide in scientific competency is reversed, the nation’s economic welfare and security will be threatened.
That was the conclusion of a report issued in May 2004 by the National Science Board, a federal advisory panel that has long charted America’s standing in the global science and engineering market. The urgent tone of the report has been heard by business leaders, science and engineering educators, and federal and state policymakers.
It helps explain why Gov. Jim Doyle has proposed tougher math and science graduation requirements for Wisconsin students, and why initiatives such as “Project Lead the Way” are catching the eye of state business leaders and educators.
In his annual State of the State speech, Doyle proposed adding a third year of math and science to high school graduation requirements so that state students are better prepared “for the challenges of the 21st century.” He’s right about the nature of the problem. While children in other nations bone up on math and science, American students shy away from those courses for many reasons – starting in middle school.
As the National Science Board warned last year, the United States must do a better job of growing its own math, science and engineering graduates. In the past, bright foreigners beat a path to our door and filled any gap produced by a lack of home-grown grads. That outside flow is threatened today because of new limits on the entry of highly educated foreigners and more intense global competition for their skills. Visas and visa applications for students, exchange visitors and highly skilled foreigners have dropped sharply since 2001.
At the same time, many Asian and European nations have realized that science and technology are crucial to their economic growth. They are better prepared to offer their best and brightest educational opportunities, and careers, at home.
“For many years we have benefited from minimal competition in the global science and engineering labor market, but attractive and competitive alternatives are now expanding around the world,” said Warren M. Washington, chairman of the National Science Board.
The result is a squeeze play – fewer American students are signing up for math and science, and fewer foreigners are filling the gap. The result is a shortage of skilled workers in the very fields that are driving the 21st century economy.
Doyle’s proposal is one answer. Another is Project Lead the Way, a national, non-profit organization that prepares students to excel in technical fields. The program introduces middle school and high school students to engineering principles through hands-on exercises applying math and science concepts to real-world problems. Students who complete the program can receive college credit that gives them a head start toward their degree and a solid background that helps them navigate technological challenges.
In March 2004, the Kern Family Foundation in Waukesha launched Project Lead the Way in Wisconsin with a three-year grant to establish programs in 100 middle and high schools over time. Seventeen school districts are already taking part, the state’s PK-16 Leadership Council was told last week. Also, the state departments of Public Instruction and Workforce Development have provided matching grants.
Nationally, 73 percent of Project Lead the Way students from 640 schools have entered engineering or technology programs – and 98 percent of those who do advance to their second year of college. That compares to a national persistence rate of 50 percent.
Those results are hard to ignore. In some states, notably Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, governments are retooling grant programs to provide support. Business leaders are supportive because they forecast a national shortage of skilled workers – perhaps as soon as 2006.
“If we’re going to have these highly skilled folks in sufficient numbers, the ability to grow our own is going to be more important,” UW System President Kevin Reilly said.
Whether it’s an extra year of math and science in high school or a focused program such as Project Lead the Way, or a combination of both, Wisconsin must do more to steer students toward careers in math, science and engineering. The handwriting is on the wall; it’s time to read it and act.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council in Madison. To learn more about Project Lead the Way, go to www.pltw.org