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Will the U.S. Remain a Leader in a Science- and Technology-Driven Economy?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Source: League of Women Voters

Education in science, technology and engineering leads to strong, innovative future generations. Scientists and educators (probably rightly) credit the U.S.’s global leadership to advances in these fields. While American science may be strong, math and science proficiency will be critical for maintaining that position, and reports are less certain on the strength of our schools.

Thus, a pressing question for the 2012 election season is how presidential candidates and Congress members will tackle education. Indeed, this question is one of 14 posed to the presidential candidates—President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney—and one of eight questions posed to 32 leaders in Congress. The questions are part of an effort led by to learn where candidates stand on science and technology issues. Scientific American has partnered with, and this post continues our ongoing series to examine each of the 14 questions. We encourage you to discuss each question in the comments. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the fifth question below regarding the future of science, technology, engineering and math education in the U.S.

Question #5 Education: Increasingly the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, and average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the past three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science- and technology-driven global economy?

A 2010 Georgetown University report projected job and education requirements and determined that the U.S. will need 22 million new college degrees by 2018 but will fail to reach that number by about three million. Of the 101 million projected jobs requiring a postsecondary education, eight million are in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Although more jobs demand a postsecondary degree, many high school students still are not prepared for college. In 2011 just one in four high school graduates met the College Readiness Benchmarks, set by ACT, Inc., maker of the standardized test. The benchmarks are intended to measure the skills and knowledge a student will need to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher in their first-year college courses without resorting to remedial classes. Of the four benchmarks—English, reading, mathematics and science—students struggled with science the most. Just 30 percent met the benchmark in science, while 66 percent met the English benchmark (the highest percentage).

U.S. students have scored low in math for decades. The National Center for Education Statistics regularly assesses eighth graders and reports on their progress in reading and math. Long-term trends show that since 1978, the average math score has increased just 17 points (from 264 to 281 out of 500) [link TK—I generated the report and have a pdf I can upload]. In the spring of 2012 the center released a national report card on science showing that the percentage of students performing at a basic or proficient level increased between 2009 and 2011. The percentage of students at an advanced or below basic level did not change.

Whereas those numbers themselves may be hard to interpret, it is easier to compare scores within groups. Average scores show a distinct gap between public and private schools—private school students scored an average of 12 points higher. Interactivity pays off—students who did hands-on projects more frequently scored higher, as did those who reported doing science-related activities outside of school.

Do the data indicate the U.S. is falling behind? It may be more a case of other countries catching up. In a 2009 international test for 15-year-olds in 65 countries, U.S. students’ average score was not measurably different from the international average in all three areas of literacy—reading, math and science (pdf). In science, 18 other countries had higher average scores, 33 earned lower average scores and 13 were on par with the U.S. scores.

The Obama administration has pushed science education through several programs. The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act of 2007 (COMPETES) was reauthorized in 2010. That act allowed President Obama to create the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and to set baselines for funding appropriations and education initiatives. As with any program, a tightening budget could endanger the success of that legislation. The next president and Congress will need to make decisions on whether U.S. students will be prepared for an innovative world.

Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.


About the Author: Marissa Fessenden is an intern at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @marisfessenden.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. GG 6:56 pm 08/24/2012

    Obama this, Obama that, on science…Puhlease…the guy is a lawyer, and not even a good one at that.

    We have too many of these paper pusher types, that is our problem.

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  2. 2. Roto2 8:33 pm 08/26/2012

    I doubt the USA will remain dominant in technology. Doing so requires the will and the funding. We have neither. Students from the USA no longer want to major in science and mathematics, whereas, those from other parts of the world do. Also, the USA no longer has the wealth to fund basic research. All our research is commercial. The long term technical future belongs to China, India, and Brazil, which each has the will and the immense wealth prospects of the future. We should become comfortable in becoming the new Italy!

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  3. 3. Petra 2:26 pm 08/31/2012

    I think it important to examine life beyond the classroom and take note of the general change in lifestyle of American families and the constant distraction of too much technology.
    Students today have everything coming at them in rapid order, yet in a classroom setting where we expect them to settle down and in-take information slowly it’s more than apparent they become bored easily.
    So maybe we should ask if our teaching methods are keeping up with the routine manner in which today’s youth are accustomed to learning?
    If we take a lesson from an old TV Show where Cotter’s Class of what might seem failures learned about the basics of a atom in using terms the kids were familiar with and success was achieved.
    So today perhaps math might be better if seen in the form computer programs that tantalize the grey cells, though sped up and offered much like a mental flash-dance.
    Yet, we have that other barrier called “money” of which there’s not enough going round and it affects educational opportunities as well.

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  4. 4. davidjaffe 2:50 pm 08/31/2012

    How do you get “remain”

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  5. 5. Billyatams 6:41 pm 08/31/2012

    The more manufacturing centers leave our shores the more tenuous our grasp on a leadership position in technology. Current thinking gives praise to ‘the government’ for creating a climate for innovation. When asked for examples of how this is done the usual answer is that government money supports several major research labs.
    Folks seem to forget that the majority of the technological leaps forward made in the last century were made in labs owned by public companies, i.e. GE Labs, Bell Labs, the several labs near Palo Alto, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts and Princeton, New Jersey to name a few. These labs were built to help the parent companies (all large manufacturers) stay ahead of their competition. They were driven by dear old capitalism.
    Now that the military industrial machine has become the center of mass for domestic manufacturing the research is driven more towards weapons technology. This narrow focus, coupled with the resource drain caused by sending US dollars overseas to purchase everything the consumer needs, will inevitably erode our technological edge.

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  6. 6. debu 10:58 am 09/1/2012

    USA must think of giving green card to all prospective applicants graduated from top US universities. New physics beyond Einstein and Newton and Bohr is a big challenge to world scientists now after finding new particle in CERN . Durgadas Datta predicted gravitoethertons and now graviton found in his Balloon inside balloon theory of matter and antimatter universe on opposite entropy producing gravitoethertons at common boundary by annihilation and injected into our universe as dark energy causing gravity and other laws etc by mono magnetic coupling etc etc So new physics will be a new chapter and giant like USA should starve if necessary to put funds with the best minds from all over world as world community love to work in USA.

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  7. 7. dragon2 12:00 pm 09/1/2012

    All you have to do is to attend a graduate level engineering class in a reputable university. I bet you’ll find most of the students (and a good number of professors) are Asian.

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  8. 8. paulgconroy 2:43 pm 09/2/2012

    The failure of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education in the US can be traced directly to the poor content knowledge of the teachers. This has been confirmed over and over in study after study. This poor content knowledge is a reflection of two things; the generally poor understanding of science/math concepts in the general population and the fact that with few exceptions the teachers come from the lower third of college graduates. To solve the problem will take a concerted effort on the part of government to attract the best STEM graduates into science careers, raise the standards for teacher preparation and mandate assessment of classroom performance. The barriers to this are all political and will require that our political leaders rise to the level of statesmen and demonstrate integrity.

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  9. 9. bucketofsquid 5:22 pm 09/5/2012

    It is normal for empires to rise and then stagnate or fall. Compared to historical empires we are about on the average for the plateau or downward slide. Some empires manage to rebound but most don’t. We have advanced enough that we need far fewer workers than we have. We have shuffled many into service or entertainment which are far from vital to our economy. As we continue to modernize and automate the number of workers needed for critical tasks will continue to decline. With only a few exceptions, those who are in families with relatively unimportant, unskilled jobs tend to view the such jobs as normal and thus are unlikely to pursue more educated and skilled jobs.

    In other words; we have succeeded to the point of self endangerment.

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