- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

The United States may be the world’s biggest consumer of technology, but when it comes to churning out scientists and engineers, American schools and families are not generating enough interest, educators say.

“We are behind the eight ball right now because other nations are competitive and pushing hard,” said JoAnn DiGennaro, president of the Center for Excellence in Education, a McLean nonprofit that promotes science and technology education.

Why aren’t American students pursuing degrees in science and technology?

“Science and engineering classes aren’t pushed when you’re young,” said Roxana Yaghoubzadeh, a 21-year-old George Washington University (GWU) senior majoring in international business.

Research shows that students often decide their career paths long before they reach college, according to Robert H. Tai, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.

“There’s a strong connection between children’s visions of what they see themselves doing as adults and what they actually end up pursuing when they become adults,” explained Mr. Tai, who earlier this year completed a study based on interviews with eighth-grade students about what job they would like to do when they get older.

Eighth-graders who said they wanted to have a science-related job were two to three times more likely to earn degrees in science.

“You look at what’s going on and in a sense, it’s not so much why college students are choosing their majors; it is really a question of how early are people starting to make these decisions about their lives and what it is they’re interested in doing,” Mr. Tai said.

Mara Geltzeiler, a 21-year-old international business major from New Jersey, bemoaned the time it takes to obtain a science degree.

“For careers in medicine and the sciences, there’s such a long path and all the education doesn’t pay off in the end,” said the GWU senior.

Mr. Tai, a former high school physics teacher, said parents and teachers must give children a better idea of what scientists and engineers actually do for a living.

“Everyone knows what a wide receiver does for the Redskins. The kids know this, they see this on TV,” he said. “Who’s explaining to them what chemists do?”

Moreover, fewer children have family members working in science or engineering to explain it to them, noted Ms. DiGennaro of the Center for Excellence in Education.

“The lack of understanding of what engineering is contributes to the problem,” she said. “Many engineers are the sons of [engineers] or they have an uncle or a mother, someone who has identified engineering as being exciting, or they would know nothing about it.”

Julie Beggans, a 21-year-old international business major at GWU, agreed.

“Engineering is more of a family thing and less students have family members involved in engineering,” she said.

On the national level, Ms. DiGennaro said the U.S. government needs to provide more incentives for students pursuing science and technology degrees in the form of grants and scholarships. Competitors such as China and India have made science and technology education a nationwide priority and, as a result, are seeing an increase in graduates in those areas, she said.

“What I find challenging is that we do not have a national policy,” Ms. DiGennaro said, adding that collaboration is lacking among public agencies, nonprofits and the private sector. “We have many programs and projects going on to meet this challenge of engineering, but it is such a huge challenge that no one or two or three organizations or one or two agencies can do it alone.”

America’s longstanding edge in science and technology is decreasing. According to 2003 figures compiled in by the National Science Foundation, the growth rate of science and engineering degrees in the U.S. has fallen below the 4 percent rate seen between 1980 and 2000.

Meanwhile, the foundation reports, Asia awarded more than four times as many engineering degrees, and twice as many science degrees, as North America did in 2002.

“This is a sign of where they [Asia] think their competitive advantage is in the new global economy,” said Jason Bordoff, a policy director for the Hamilton Project, a Brookings Institution initiative aimed at promoting economic growth. “The U.S. is at the technological frontier and maintaining that requires even more investment than is true for other countries.”

Lamine Hamdad, a 31-year-old graduate student from Algeria, said he notices a significant difference between the U.S. and his native country.

“A lot of kids in Algeria got into computer engineering because it’s very needed,” he said. “In Asia, they are forced to learn the math and sciences early. Americans have the choice to stay away from it.”

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