The U.S. needs a math and science revolution to compete in the global economy

For the past few months, many of my colleagues have been college students from Southern Hemisphere countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand and Australia.  They are here on temporary visas working in the ski industry during their summer breaks.  And they are smart, industrious kids.

Their majors are almost universally in the math and science focused fields – engineering, medicine, and architecture, for example.  Not one of these foreigners is studying communications, art history or psychology.  Yet, it seems like every college-age young adult I knew was planning to study these soft, non-science, non-math-based subjects.  Even my own children had studied history, English and music as opposed to engineering or medicine.

The importance of my anecdotal findings was brought into sharp relief by Tom Friedman’s March 3rd column in the New York Times, which included the following quote by Intel CEO Paul Otellini:

“While America still has the quality work force, political stability and natural resources a company like Intel needs, the U.S. is badly lagging in developing the next generation of scientific talent and incentives to induce big multinationals to create lots more jobs here.”

The statistics back up Otellini’s opinion and my observations.  In the most recent census of Ph.D. recipients at U.S. universities, the vast majority who had studied in engineering, physical sciences and computer sciences were non-U.S. citizens.  Nearly 70 percent of engineering doctorates were conferred on foreign students, around 60 percent in math, more than 50 percent in the physical sciences, and approximately 65 percent in computer science.  Americans had the overwhelming edge in psychology (nearly 90 percent), social sciences (more than 60 percent), biological sciences (65 percent), and earth sciences (61 percent). 

What’s causing this shift in emphasis by U.S. students into the softer arenas?  Is it simply the naturally occurring evolution of a great and powerful nation?  Is it a trend that cannot be stopped or dealt with by our society?

I have a sense of the problem based on anecdotal evidence and the observed experience of a teacher (my wife) for more than 25 years:  we get the education that we demand for our kids.  Parents often go to the mat with teachers and administrators to make certain that their children get higher grades and less demanding work.   The happiness of our children has become paramount to parents, and the resultant epidemic of grade inflation and stress-free education has opened the door for the children of other cultures to move into the sweet spot of Intel’s (and other forces in technology’s) hiring practices.

While there are multiple studies extolling the positive influence of parents on their children’s education, most of them measure success on the basis of getting kids into college – not on what they are studying.  But the statistics make it clear that we are encouraging our kids to take the easy paths and leave the tough stuff to the children of cultures that are scraping their way to the top.