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No. 465:
Science & Engineering. Education

Today, a hard look at science and engineering education. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

You've heard so much about the state of science education in America. So, is there fire behind all the smoke? Yes, there is. First, the high schools: our students are dead last among developed nations in biology. In chemistry and physics we're behind all but one or two. We're in last place in mathematics.

Only 6 percent of our high school students go on to study engineering. In Japan that number is 20 percent. Worse yet, even our shabby 6 percent is slipping away. At the PhD level, we face disaster. The PhD supply is dropping twice as fast as the demand is rising. We expect a 35-percent shortfall by the year 2000. To make matters worse, almost every PhD who'll graduate before 2000 has already picked his college major.

We'd be worse off still if we didn't turn to the third world for PhDs. Our own students shy away from graduate school, so we strip Asia of her best and brightest students. We give them an education and citizenship in exchange for making our machines run. Half our new engineering PhDs are immigrants. Without them our colleges and hi-tech industry would be in real trouble.

The problem feeds itself. Our students begin to doubt they belong in college science programs. They wonder why half their science faculty is foreign-born. Back in the high schools, we have a hard time finding physics teachers.

Women and minorities ought to be a rich source of new engineers. There, too, our record is terrible. Thirty percent of undergraduates are minorities. Yet in the engineering and science work force they number only 5 percent. And those numbers aren't improving. Women engineering enrollment reached 16 percent in the early '80s. It has sputtered ever since. In the technical work force, women number only 11 percent.

Of course, crisis harbors opportunity. Opportunity is enormous for young people who want to live a rich intellectual life. The job market will be superb for good engineers and scientists in AD 2000. But what teenager gives a rap about that? High-school students have better vision than that. They don't ask, "How much will I earn?" They ask "Will my work give me pleasure?"

And that's where we fail them. We give an adult's answer to a child's question. We talk to them about earning a living, not about pleasures of the mind. We forget to tell students that engineering and science really promise exactly what they want most. We fail to talk about the mystery of an open question -- of the wonder of being first to create a new thing. And for that, we're slipping into deep trouble.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Changing America: The New Face of Science and Engineering, Interim Report of the Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. Washington, D.C.: 1988.

International Science and Technology Data Update: 1988, Special Report NSF 89-307. Washington, D.C.: The National Science Foundation, 1988.

Atkinson, R,C, Supply and Demand for Scientists and Engineers: A National Crisis in the Making. Science, Vol. 248, 27 April 1990, pp. 425-435.

Bloch, E., Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation. Science, Vol. 249, 24 August 1990, pp. 839-840.

Dertouzos, M.L., Lester, R.K., and Solow, R.M., Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989.

What's it Like to be a Woman Engineer? Engineering Education News, Dec. 1989, pp. 1-3.