Science Education: Who's Ahead?

We've heard that America is floundering in science and that even India and China graduate more engineers and are more dedicated to science than the U.S. Maybe some of this is bravado, for instance abroad, foreigners sometimes brag to visitors that "all the doctors in America are from [fill in the blank]". And although many are, some of this is nationalism speaking. Acronym Required previously commented on the international sport of berating American students in the article "A Fine Balance".

It continues. The other day on NPR, a caller chastised American youth for being obsessed with movie stars, whereas in India, he said, kids were really focused on science and math. He did not mention that actually, in India, movie stars are sometimes elevated to Gods. Nor did he mention that sometimes those who work in Bollywood move on to Indian politics, just like the U.S., or land prestigious careers at engineering schools. Is this a threat?

And are the graduation numbers real, do they matter? Vivek Wadhwa wrote an article in BusinessWeek this week; "About That Engineering Gap...", to correct previous statistics for the graduation rates that were widely reported in the media. The numbers for India and China were inflated he said, because of various interpretations of words like "engineer" and "degree", in different languages. By the author's count, the popular statistics noting 70,000 engineer graduates each year in the U.S., 350,000 in India and 600,000 in China are wrong. Rather he says 137,437 graduate from U.S. schools, 112,000 in India, and about 351,537 (loosely counting) graduate in China. The full report is published here at Duke, where the author now works.

Not that we should sigh in deep relief, slouch in our lazyboys with a bag of microwave popcorn and ogle over 'Desperate Housewives' - or whatever voyeuristic disaster tale is in play this week - while our kids plead for algebra help in the background.

Yes, the spurious statistics were used in the recent National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine's report on science education (or lack of) in the U.S.. Acronym Required wrote about the report here. But those numbers are only a part of the picture, one of many indicators that the nation is struggling, some would say floundering, to successfully redefine its presence in science and technology education, employment and competitiveness. As Wadhwa says:

"[O]ur higher education system isn't in trouble -- in fact, it's still the world's best. We spend the most on research, produce the most patents, have the most innovative curriculum, and educate many of the world's leaders."

He says that claiming we have a weak education system will only make it weak. Perhaps the U.S. needs coaching in "technology education" marketing?

We reported last week in Burning Bridges" that "The Numbers Guy" also wrote an column in the Wall Street Journal stating that the graduation numbers seemed suspect.

follow us on twitter!