Educators, Biz Leaders Push Better Science Education

Educators, Biz Leaders Push Better Science Education

The U.S. needs to use tax money to give college scholarships, and to provide more interesting math and science classes in high schools, to avoid losing its leadership position in the technology industry, a group of educators and business leaders said Thursday.

The U.S. needs to use tax money to give college scholarships, and to provide more interesting math and science classes in high schools, to avoid losing its leadership position in the technology industry, a group of educators and business leaders said Thursday.

Witnesses at a congressional hearing on competitiveness in math and science offered a number of recommendations to lawmakers, including full scholarships for high-achieving math, science and engineering students. The U.S. needs to respond now just as it did in the late 1950s, when Congress passed a broad-ranging education initiative after the Soviet Union launched the first space satellite, said Thomas Magnanti, dean of the School of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Technology groups, including TechNet and the Semiconductor Industry Association, have made education reform a top legislative priority this year. In April, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates blamed the U.S. kindergarten through 12th-grade education system for the lagging number of math and science students in U.S. colleges. India and China each graduate three times the number of engineering students per year than the U.S. does, Magnanti said.

During Thursdays hearing, Magnanti called for Congress to approve government-supported graduate fellowships for students in math, science and engineering, while Norm Augustine, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corp., asked for full college scholarships to top students in those areas.

Without a renewed national emphasis on math and science, the U.S. economy will suffer as countries such as India and China take high-paying science and technology jobs away from the U.S., witnesses at the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness said. I believe this is our wake-up call — our Sputnik moment, said Nancy Songer, professor of science education and learning technologies at the University of Michigan.

Despite the calls for government-funded scholarships, subcommittee Chairman Howard Buck McKeon said math and science students dont lack incentives. An average starting salary for an engineer in the U.S. is about US$50,000, which is 66 percent higher than the starting salary for a liberal arts major and 43 percent higher than the starting salary of a business administration major.

Clearly, there are already ample incentives to attain degrees in math, science and engineering, said McKeon, a California Republican.

Instead, McKeon called a lack of math and science students a pipeline issue, where students in grade school and high school fall away from interest in those subjects. Close to half of all school math teachers didnt major or minor in math in college, and only half of the students who begin college intending to pursue math or science degrees graduate with a degree in those areas within six years, he said. Colleges need to do a better job of retaining math and science students, while high schools need to hire more teachers with main interests in science or math, he added.

McKeon also questioned the style of teaching done at universities, saying that the method of instruction at most colleges hasnt changed in 40 years. Magnanti disagreed, saying colleges are beginning to focus on more hands-on education such as engineering contests to build the best device.

Magnanti and Augustine both called for a number of changes in K-12 education. Magnanti advocated an engineering curriculum that would bring the thrill of teamwork and technology to life in math and science classes. More top universities should connect with K-12 schools and offer their students classes, he also said.

Augustine called for K-12 schools to allow experts in subjects to teach without going through lengthy teacher accreditations. He also supported a longer school year and merit pay for teachers, which has been opposed by the teachers union, the National Education Association.

McKeon noted that technology and investments other countries made during the 1990s have allowed countries like China and India to compete with the U.S. in industries such as technology. Today, anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can compete for business with anyone else around the world, he said. We put out this money, we built the Net, we built the World Wide Web, he said of the U.S. And all they need is a computer to compete.

Representative Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat, said its not enough for the subcommittee to just hear ideas about improving math and science education. The subcommittee should act on witness recommendations, he said. Its frustrating, because just saying its a Sputnik moment doesnt make it so, he said.

In the 1950s and 60s, parents told children to eat everything on their plates because children in Asia were starving. Now the message from parents should be, make sure you study very hard, because there are kids in China and India who want your job, he said.

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