The Next Great Resource Shortage: U.S. Scientists

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

US President Barack Obama tours a biotech classroom at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on December 6, 2010.

The word "stem" is tossed around so much at education meetings these days, you'd think you were at a gardening seminar. STEM is shorthand for "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics" — all fields that are growing, providing lucrative jobs, and key to future American competitiveness. That's why everyone from President Obama to the United States Chamber of Commerce is worried about whether we're producing enough STEM graduates from our colleges and universities. That this is a problem is one of the few things that everyone in education seems to agree upon.

Part of the push for better STEM education stems — sorry — from American companies claiming there are shortages of American workers able to take on certain roles. Each year, American technology and engineering firms push to expand the number of workers allowed under the "H-1B" visa program, a category that allows companies to hire foreigners in roles where they cannot find a qualified American citizen. Critics claim the H-1B program is more a ploy to allow companies to hire skilled workers cheaper.

STEM anxiety is also an outgrowth of larger concerns about American competitiveness. The growing number of STEM workers in countries like China and India has policymakers on edge. You often hear that China and India are producing many more engineers than the United States, but when researchers from Duke University looked closely at the numbers, they found that what's counted as an engineering degree in those countries would often be considered a vocational certificate or two-year degree in this country. The Duke team found relative parity between the United States and China and India when the engineering comparison was apples to apples.

And part of our STEM obsession is frankly just longtime habit. In the 1950s, it was Admiral Hyman Rickover calling for more math and science education as part of the effort to keep us competitive with the Soviets. Congress passed legislation to support math and science education in 1958 and advocates have been pushing for more ever since. Congress passed several STEM measures in just the last decade, including the 2007 America Competes Act, which includes measures to recruit and train teachers in STEM subjects.

Still, debatable need, confused statistics, and force of habit doesn't mean there isn't an actual STEM problem facing the United States. American students should be doing better in math and science than they are now, and we are arguably producing too few college STEM majors. If the global competitiveness race turns into a numbers game, we're in trouble absent dramatic improvements: If it were its own country, the populations of China and India aged 14 and younger would each still be among the top five nations in the world in terms of population. That means that even marginal improvements in education in those countries will pay big dividends and put them on a stronger competitive footing. Besides, there is little doubt that our own economic future hinges in no small part on remaining a leader in innovation in science and technology.

So we want more college graduates in STEM careers. How do we get them? Right now policymakers are fixated on upgrading the quality of the math and science teaching force through better recruitment and training. "Out-of-field" teachers — meaning those without proper training in the subject — remain an acute problem in math and science. Scholarships, loan-forgiveness, and even higher pay are all used to attract more teachers into STEM fields. More creative ideas are emerging, too. Math For America provides $100,000 fellowships for math teachers and Partners in Science gives science teachers the opportunity to undertake actual scientific work at national laboratories during the summer. All good ideas, but to some extent we're chasing our tail: Not enough STEM graduates means not enough STEM teachers, regardless of the incentives.

The second answer is to expose students to STEM fields early on and use scholarships and inducements for them to choose STEM careers. This is where the STEM rhetoric meets our educational reality: A lot of students are not going into STEM careers today not because they're unaware of the choice, but rather because they cannot make that choice because of the quality of education they are receiving.

Think about it. With high school graduation rates of only about 75 percent overall (and 64 percent for Hispanics and 62 percent for African-Americans) we lose a lot of potential STEM students long before college. At the same time, many students graduating from high schools are not taking the math and science courses necessary to pursue a STEM career. Experts estimate that only about one-third of graduating high school students are genuinely college-ready.

Of course, not all currently underserved students would choose STEM careers either. People chose their work for a variety of reasons. Yet it's a reasonable assumption that some percentage of currently underserved students would choose STEM just as some percentage of more advantaged students do now. So rather than trying to squeeze a few more STEM students from populations that can already choose STEM if they want to, perhaps policymakers should focus even more on giving currently under-served populations the ability to make a STEM choice in the first place. If you're not taking the right classes — or worse, if you're not in school — STEM careers are not a viable choice for you. Fixing that seems the path to the richest untapped vein of future American talent.

In other words, in the long term, the STEM agenda really isn't that different than the more general school improvement agenda. Linking the two more explicitly would also help make the push for STEM more relevant and engaging for parents than it is today. Because while education leaders can't shut up about STEM, it's hardly even on the radar of most parents — when they talk about stems they usually are talking about plants.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.