Educrats may bemoan the sorry state of American students' performance in math and science relative to their peers overseas, but the kids themselves are enthusiastic about pursuing brainiac careers.

Some 85 percent of kids surveyed by the Lemelson–M.I.T. Invention Index, an annual survey that examines Americans' attitudes about innovation, said they were interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to results released yesterday. The phone survey was conducted in November among 501 kids ages 12 to 17.

But nearly two-thirds polled said they may ultimately pursue other professions because they don’t have a mentor or understand what's involved in a science, math or engineering career.

That's hardly surprising, says Laura Vanderkam, a journalist who writes's "Where Are They Now?" profiles of former science-talent contest winners.

"Almost all of those kids had mentors," Vanderkam says of the Where Are They Now subjects. "They had someone who was usually a research scientist whom they worked with very closely for a year or more and that was very important in showing them how to do their jobs and what’s involved in a career in science."

Today, she says, "Very few high school kids in general have mentors in anything. There’s no way you can replicate that on a countrywide basis."

Eighty percent of the students surveyed said they felt their school prepared them for a science career, "which is downright delusional," Vanderkam says. Just 23 percent of class of 2007 high school grads who took the ACT college-entrance exam showed they were prepared for university-level English, math, reading, and science, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. And more than 40 percent of undergrads haven't graduated six years into college, the publication notes.

Still, it's encouraging that the budding scientists are driven by the green movement, Vanderkam says. Some 56 percent of kids in the survey said they were inspired to "help protect the environment" or "improve society."

"It’s cool that science has been able to re-brand itself and teens are thinking that way," Vanderkam says. "If people don’t think of scientists as working alone, locked in their tower, but as eco-heroes saving the planet, that’s a lot more exciting."

Image courtesy of Lemelson–M.I.T. Invention Index