University reacts to NSB report

University administrators said the National Science Board's latest report, which predicts a national workforce shortage in science and engineering, desribes a problem that must be addressed at all levels of education and from a variety of different angles.

According to the NSB report, released last week, the nation is at risk of losing its global advantages in science and technology that rely on the capabilities of the national workforce. With increased competition from other countries for foreign scientists and engineers--who have traditionally flocked to the United States for employment--and stagnant interest from U.S. students in pursuing science and engineering careers, the NSB says the nation is faced with both economic and security risks unless the federal government does something to stimulate interest in the most hard-hit fields.

Members of the NSB task force reponsible for the report said although the shortage is likely to hit across the board, it will be less severe in life sciences, but especially severe in mathematics, physics and some areas of engineering.

Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering Kristina Johnson, who has advocated efforts to attract more students to engineering for a number of years, said the problem needs to be addressed at a very early age. "The most important time is grades three through five. Studies have shown that that's when kids opt out of interest in math and science," Johnson said. "If you opt out then, it's kind of hard to pursue a degree in science or engineering."

Johnson noted that, while Pratt expects its students to enter the program with a background in calculus, many high schools are not taking their students even close to that level of math instruction. "We need to require four years in math, just like in English. It may be the broccoli of the high school curriculum, but it's good for you and we need it," she said.

As noted in the NSB report, part of maintaining students' interest in math, science and engineering stems from the recruitment and retention of adequate teachers at the pre-college level. David Morrison, chair of the math department, said poor funding for public schools often translates into poor levels of training for science teachers, in turn translating into decreased interest in the field.

"There are a lot of people teaching science who don't know very much science or are not familiar with current trends," Morrison said. "You can get a bug for science at an early age, but it typically happens because someone exposes you to cool things about science when you're really young."

The problem continues into high school, Morrison said, where schools do not offer adequate compensation to attract qualified math and science teachers. Whereas the report made the broad suggestion of ensuring attractive compensation for adequately trained science teachers, Johnson said she felt a more radical solution might be warranted.

"What if we just had teachers at K-12 levels be tax-free? If we gave teachers some sort of tax break, rather than having huge tax cuts across the board, I think you'd see a lot if interest in teaching," she said.

Even if students make it through elementary and high school with intact interests in math, science or engineering, an undergraduate major in the same does not necessarily follow.

"There are certainly people who lack interest in science and engineering because they don't have the math background to really do more mathematical sciences in college," said Harold Baranger, chair of the physics department. "But there are also people who do have the background but choose to do other things. In a lot of cases, undergraduates are making a rational choice about where the best opportunities and their best interests lie." Morrison speculated that in higher education the lack of interest in math, science or engineering stems not necessarily from poor elementary school experiences but from a scarcity of career opportunities once a degree is obtained.

"Math is not the most glamorous thing, that's certainly true," Morrison said, noting that it did not always used to be this way. "There used to be research programs that spanned the gamut from direct engineering work all the way through highly theoretical work. But the companies that traditionally sponsored those aren't doing that anymore."

Instead, he said, the trend has turned toward research in life sciences such as biology, causing more people to turn toward biology--and fewer to math--as a course of study. Lately, some companies such as Microsoft have reinstituted the theoretical research lab--a mecca for those excited by fields such as math--but it is not yet a widespread practice, Morrison said.

He added that a number of scientifically minded students who may have had initial interests in fields like math, physics and engineering have turned instead to degrees that will feed into the abundant career opportunities provided by the computer and pharmaceutical industries.

"I have seen some trends nationally that are reflected at Duke. One has been that it's difficult to get a significant number of U.S. students interested in mathematics careers, although there has been an increase in the number of foreign students we find at the graduate level," Morrison said. "This is partly because of the other opportunities available to American-educated students."

Johnson said that while more competetive stipends for graduate students in science and engineering could help increase continued study in those fields, other solutions are also in order. For example, she said, she wants to see a shorter the time required to earn a doctoral degree in engineering so that students can apply their skills sooner. Morrison suggested a similar approach to increasing interest in math.

"An effective way of stimulating interest in mathematics careers is by giving real research experience in mathematics at an undergraduate level," he said.


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