U.S. science and math weakness threatens nation's leadership role

April 25, 2008, Bellingham, WA--Of the 30 top world economies, 29 have common high-quality standards and common science and math curricula, and one--the United States--does not, Robert Corcoran of the GE Foundation noted last week in Washington, D.C.

April 25, 2008, Bellingham, WA--Of the 30 top world economies, 29 have common high-quality standards and common science and math curricula, and one--the United States--does not, Robert Corcoran of the GE Foundation noted last week in Washington, D.C. That lack of emphasis "is not a way to stay competitive," he added.

Corcoran was among 95 lawmakers, program directors, agency representatives, and others at a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education event held April 17 in conjunction with the STEM Education Caucus on Capitol Hill. He spoke at a luncheon briefing sponsored by SPIE—the International Society for Optics and Photonics, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Chemical Society. Other speakers included Diane Spresser of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Bill Valdez of the Department of Energy (DoE) Office of Science, and Barbara Koscak of the Department of Defense (DoD) Starbase program.

U.S. 15-year-olds performed below the average for 30 industrialized countries in both mathematics and science according to the recently released Programme for International Student Assessment, Spresser said. In addition, she said, only 70 percent of U.S. students graduate on time from high school with a regular diploma.

Falling behind in educating the workforce of the next generation will have serious consequences, experts agree. "U.S. citizens, accustomed to competing with their neighbors for jobs, now must compete with candidates from all around the world," said Norman Augustine in an essay published last fall. Augustine chaired a recent National Academies committee on America's economic prospects and workforce needs. "Only by providing leading-edge human capital and knowledge capital can America continue to maintain a high standard of living--including providing national security--for its citizens."

Corcoran promoted strategies such as doubling the required number of credit hours in math and science for teachers, requiring four years of high school math and science, and adopting national standards for a high-quality common curriculum.

Koscak and Valdez described K-12 science education programs administered by their organizations. Valdez said that more than 35 governmental agencies are involved in STEM R&D and have programs in STEM education or workforce development.

SPIE's sponsorship of the event reflects its members' support of STEM education and R&D. "The more we can expose K-12 students to exciting hands-on science and technology, the greater the likelihood that these students will take a long-term interest in becoming a scientist, engineer or mathematician," said SPIE Vice President Ralph James of Brookhaven National Lab. "We need STEM education programs that show students that science can be fun and rewarding."


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