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The Individual and Collective Incentives for Improving Science and Math Education

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October 27, 2010 08:31 pm


WSJ_MajorPayday_102610An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times paints a grim picture of our international standing in math and science education. According to the piece, the National Academies finds that the United States ranks 27th out of 29 wealthy countries in the proportion of college students with degrees in science in engineering and the World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th out of 133 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. The editorial board concludes by calling for Congress to expand funding for programs that support high-caliber math and science students in college in return for their commitment to teach in needy districts.

The Wall Street Journal also reported Monday that the starting pay of liberal arts majors generally clocks in well below that of graduates in math and science fields. As the chart to the right (courtesy of the Wall Street Journal and shows the average pay for engineering majors’ first full time job is $56,000 while the average pay for English majors’ first full-time job is $34,000 – the difference of $22,000 a year is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

So not only is there a need for more science and math majors in order for the United States to stay economically competitive but there is also a financial incentive for individuals to pursue these career paths. President Obama has recognized the importance of attracting and educating children in these fields, most recently last Monday at the White House Science fair.  At the event, Obama spoke to students, teachers and business leaders about the importance of improving education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). See below for an excerpt from his speech:

So we welcome championship sports teams to the White House to celebrate their victories.  I’ve had the Lakers here.  I’ve had the Saints here, the Crimson Tide.  I thought we ought to do the same thing for the winners of science fair and robotic contests, and math competitions. Because often we don’t give these victories the attention that they deserve.  And when you win first place at a science fair, nobody is rushing the field or dumping Gatorade over your head.  But in many ways, our future depends on what happens in those contests  — what happens when a young person is engaged in conducting an experiment, or writing a piece of software, or solving a hard math problem, or designing a new gadget.

It’s in these pursuits that talents are discovered and passions are lit, and the future scientists, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs are born.  That’s what’s going to help ensure that we succeed in the next century, that we’re leading the world in developing the technologies, businesses and industries of the future.

And this is the reason my administration has put such a focus on math and science education — because despite the importance of inspiring and educating our children in these fields, in recent years the fact is we’ve been outpaced by a lot of our competitors.  One assessment shows that American 15-year-olds ranked 21st in science and 25th in math when compared to their peers around the world…But the point is, is that there are tens of millions of talented young people out there who haven’t been similarly inspired, and we’ve got to figure out how do we make sure that everybody who’s got that same talent and inclination, how do we give them the tools that they need so that they can succeed, so that they’re entering international science competitions, so that they’re up to snuff when it comes to math.

In his remarks, the President also described current efforts to strengthen the science and technology fields such as Race to the Top, the federally funded competitive grant program that challenged states to create the conditions for innovation and reform, and the Education Jobs Fund bill which helped preserve the jobs of educators and school workers across the nation.

Obama also announced two new public-private initiatives to further his goal of moving from the middle to the top in math and science education over the next decade.  The first by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the Defense Department, is a campaign to inspire young people in science and engineering to help create what DARPA Director Regina Dugan has called a “renaissance of wonder.” The second effort, led by chief executives from leading tech firms and other businesses, is an online campaign to show young people the array of jobs that companies offer scientists and engineers.

These efforts are all commendable and build a promising path to improving STEM education. However with the New York Times editorial board pointing out that, “More than half the patents awarded here last year were given to companies from outside the United States”, it’s hard to forget that we have a ways to go before we top any lists ranking nations’ math and science instruction.

International Comparisons

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