June 15, 2009

Return on an Anti-Science Societal Investment

Pentagon fears technology edge may be eroding; Defense officials cite shortage of scientists (Boston Globe)

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"We don't have enough people going into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics," added Werner Dahm, the chief scientist of the Air Force, adding that "the best and the brightest get hired away by industry."

The gap between supply and demand in science and engineering skills is a nationwide problem that has been brewing for years. A study last year by the National Science Foundation found that the number of graduates with science and engineering degrees - at the bachelor's level or higher - increased by an average rate of 1.5 percent a year from 1980 to 2005. But the average employment growth for such jobs each year over the same period was 4.2 percent.

Thing is, we shouldn't have a deficit of people going into these fields. We're a well off country; we should be able to get our kids educated and into STEM careers.

I can't tell you what THE problem is, but I can tell you that motivation is one difficult-to-surmount problem. And while it is only one factor, it is a factor that has a social component. This implies to me that the social context has a role to play, either as part of the problem or part of a solution.

When Sputnik was launched, we saw a space race propel young people into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers. But when we have been attacked by terrorists, we seem to have pounded our calculators into swords. I don't believe that math, science and technology are a panacea for terrorism, but advanced technology is a force multiplier that allows us to throw fewer bodies and more brains at any problem we choose.

A society is beset by any number of difficulties. Whether they are from enemies who seek to do us harm, environmental forces, diseases, economic woes, or what-have-you, together they sap a nation's capacity. If you like the society you're in, you have to think about what you can do to keep it going. This is why I've spoken about shared responsibility in the past. I'm all for frivolous endeavors to balance one's life, but the country needs its best minds working to solve humanity's problems. Global terrorism is but one of those problems, but in a sense our entire set of problems are interlinked, in that solutions draw from the same pool of resources.

I think that mathematics education is a huge issue for the future of this country and that of the free world if we are to see freedom's perpetuation, progress and growth. I see basic enemies of freedom ready to mire us in extremism, anti-intellectual fundamentalism, and violence.

Why have we not seen the sort of rush to STEM as we have at times in the past? I believe our attitudes play a huge role. When was the last time you were asked to observe a holiday honoring engineers?

Not that such holidays necessarily result in more engineers; many people will tell you that Memorial Day is squandered. But STEM is not embraced by our society. People are still considered nerds and geeks if their minds draw them to technical or theoretical problems.

What do we do about it? I don't know. Motivating the population as a whole is beyond my knowledge. Do you start small and learn to motivate individual students, or go big and declare STEM careers "patriotic?" Or do you go the Dick Cheney route and tell people we're all gonna die if kids don't start embracing their homework?

I'll try to do my part on a small level, but I think it's going to take a much wider effort.

Posted by James at June 15, 2009 11:13 AM
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I am always frustrated by the stereotype that people are either "math geniuses" or they're regular people. (Loved the new Star Trek movie, but there it was, 17-year-old geek Pavel Chekov. Obviously "born with it.")

Fortunately I was "born" with enough to go into computer science with little effort, but if I'd realized young that some people actually work hard to do well, then maybe (just maybe) I would've tried a little harder at my first love, physics.

The TA who taught our class the other night shared that he took Linear Algebra twice. A PhD math candidate. Actually, I took my first programming class twice. I dropped it the first time; it made no sense to me. (See that was my modus operandi, drop it if it's hard, you obviously can't do it.) I'm not sure why I tried again.

But what can we do about this? I see two kinds of people. I see the "But Mrs. Burke, we contribute to society, we pay sales tax" mall brats who can't get new cell phones fast enough, and I see kids (for example in my Linear Algebra class) working really, really hard. My niece just won an academic honor in her high school class, and there are students who are taking more AP classes than she takes (I think she's taking four or five science classes next year) just so they can raise their GPA (above 4.0). There are some very competitive, very hard-working kids out there, and then there are the bums. Has the proportion changed, or do we just need more of the hard workers than we needed before?

Posted by: Maggie at June 15, 2009 1:07 PM

Honestly, I think outsourcing has a lot to do with it. If the growth of these careers is outpacing the number of new graduates, then why have so many of my highly skilled friends been out of work for six months or more?

Posted by: briwei at June 15, 2009 1:46 PM

I was thinking the same thing as Brian. I can't say about the chemistry and biology jobs, but too much of the computer-related stuff and electronics has gone overseas.

And the education/experience requirements for the remaining jobs are extremely narrow. If you were doing something else before, then they don't think you can possibly do something that's slightly different.

Posted by: Julie at June 15, 2009 1:54 PM

I didn't try hard enough in school. I just didn't think I needed to (at first) and didn't realize what I could attain if I tried harder. I was lucky to be able to get by as well as I could; I assumed that higher achieving people were simply smarter.

Surely, there are plenty of smarter people, but hard work is something you have to embrace to make a difference in your own life. On a personal level, that's what a good student is: someone who is trying to make a difference in his or her own learning. Not someone who "gets" the material right away.

Posted by: James at June 15, 2009 2:08 PM

Part of the problem with being smart enough is that you "get" enough of it right away that you don't realize hard work would get you more, or you don't think the payoff is going to be good enough.

But enough about us. ;-) I'm with Brian and Julie, of course. Put your money where your mouth is. There have to be interesting jobs for people to go into. What I'm hearing, and maybe it's just because at the CC level we can't educate people for the really interesting jobs, is that the jobs that are out there are the ones that require soft skills as well as hard skills, such as IT, because those jobs can't be outsourced. Well screw that. I'm not training people to reattach somebody's mouse for the fifth time, and do it with a smile. Show us the money.

Posted by: Maggie at June 15, 2009 2:22 PM

And make no mistake, I'm not saying, and I don't think Brian and Julie are saying, that we want obscenely high-paying jobs. Decent jobs would be good enough!!

Posted by: Maggie at June 15, 2009 2:23 PM

Well as far as jobs right now go the economy is certainly not helping. I also think that the high tech boom and bust of recent years has really hurt people in that field because the boom drove up salaries and more and more people went into the field becuase of that. Then once the bust hit there were too many people for too few jobs. Add to that the ability to outsource and it makes for a bad situation.

Things aren't nearly so bad in biotech. We had a fairly major layoff last year and I don't know of anyone who spent an extensive amount of time looking for a job. Not to say that if the same thing happend today the same would be true because I'm sure there are fewer companies hiring right now. I know we're frozen at the moment.

I'm not sure I believe that the space race really motivated people to go into science any more than global warming or terrorism or whatever might today. hard for me to believe that all those rebels without a cause and flower children decided to work for NASA so we could beat the Russians to the moon.

What ultimately motivated them might have been they were good at science/math and there was money to be made by going into those fields.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at June 15, 2009 3:19 PM

Yeah. I don't want a king's ransom. I just want to be able to make a decent living.

I have to admit that part of the reason I majored in English was because it was easier for me than other subjects that I liked just as much.

But the other reason I didn't go for science was because I knew next to nothing, and didn't know how to find out more, about fields of study and related careers when I was making decisions about going to college. I was 17, for crying out loud.

My parents had convinced me that there weren't any jobs in these fields, and my guidance counselor wasn't helpful either. And my chemistry teacher unfortunately told us that most chemistry students end up being chem teachers. Maybe that was true in her day and maybe it wasn't, but I didn't investigate further.

Meanwhile, because I had already done lots of reading, I was quite familiar with the different kinds of writing that might offer me a career. It seemed like a sensible choice at the time, based on what little I knew.

But I didn't know how little I knew. The best thing the school could have done for all of us would have been to actually educate us on what was really out there. However, the school's demographic was such that it was all they could do to get some kids to graduate at all, and many wanted to find a job right out of high school. I think that took up most of the guidance staff's time.

They at least did a good job of helping us with our college applications, so it's not like they weren't doing anything. But maybe it's not a great idea to expect a kid to pick a school, much less a major (even a tentative one) until you're sure they know what their choices are!

Posted by: Julie at June 15, 2009 4:43 PM

You're right, B.O.B. I shouldn't assert that the space race propelled the youth into STEM careers; I don't know that it did that.

What it really did was change math and science education, and changed attitudes about them. People were concerned enough that they handed the curriculum reins to actual scientists, much to the dismay of people who had traditionally been controlling curriculum.

That push for reform was short-lived, as there was a lot of pressure from educators to go back to "the way they were taught" math and science. unfortunately, "the way they were taught" is more appropriate for teaching shopkeepers than it is for teaching scientists and engineers.

Reforms were needed, and we did have a science and technical surge eventually (a causal relationship? I can't say). here's some background on the effect of Sputnik:

Sputnik Left Legacy for U.S. Science Education

How Sputnik changed U.S. education

From Sputnik to TIMSS: Reforms in Science Education Make Headway Despite Setbacks

If we have a new "policy Sputnik" today, that would be a good thing. a "social Sputnik" would lead to reforms, if attitudes were to change. I don't know what it would take for people to realize the ripple effect of the dwindling number of Americans seeking to become degreed scientists.

Posted by: James at June 15, 2009 4:49 PM

I don't believe I received any guidance at all. Zip. I applied to small liberal arts colleges mostly, and I remember applying for a special program, some sort of history program, at Trinity that I got accepted into. Why, I have no idea. After a year of "liberal arts" education I decided to go into computer science, but again I can't for the life of me remember my reasoning. Because I enjoyed BASIC programming in high school? I think I was torn between that and physics, and found physics too difficult. I'm fairly baffled by how people figure out what they're going to learn to get a job, but it's important in my new job so I need to figure it out.

Posted by: Maggie at June 15, 2009 4:51 PM

Brian: one of the reasons that people can be out of work for so long is that they do not have flexibility in this recession. Some folks are tied to a location either because a spouse has a job in the area or the bought a house near the height of the housing bubble.

We're seeing some people compensate by (unfortunately) working away from their spouses. This implies that there are jobs to find, but they are not convenient for the stability of families that have dug in and grown up in a completely different set of conditions.

For years we saw the necessity for families to have two working parents; now we see how this can impact the economy (certainly at a family level, now, possibly at a national level).

Lack of flexibility is not only a problem because it reduces the stability of the family, it also prevents labor from following the resources, creating an inefficiency in the labor economy.

This is all just my armchair economic theorizing, so take it with a big grain of salt. :-)

Posted by: James at June 15, 2009 7:26 PM

Part of the problem I think is exactly what Maggie said, people buy into the concept that you either intuitively understand math & science (and love it) or you don't. I remember when growing up always hearing (and probably saying myself) "I'm not a math/science person, I'm an english/history person." Now part of me thinks that people find math harder because its more abstract, but part of me thinks people find it harder because there are definite right and wrong answers and you can't just BS your way through it.

But I also think that there is a myth that you can just get a degree in ANYTHING and the fact that you have a degree will get you a good job (i.e., it proves you can apply yourself). That's a load of crap. My anthropology degree may have been personally enriching, but its never gotten me a job.

I also think that as much as employers talk about a shortage of engineers, they seem to do so as an excuse for why they are outsourcing everything to India and China. It's like Brian and Julie said, the few jobs out there for engineers seem to all require 5 years of experience doing the exact work they want you to do with the same exact tools. In a field as rapidly changing as IT and programming that's generally impossible. This is a reflection of the fact that companies do not want to invest in a long-term skilled and stable workforce. It's been said that companies like 3M or IBM used to hire on college grads and not make any real money off of them for the first year or two they were employees, but it was a good investment because that person would be there for life, or at least for decades. Now it seems like many companies want to hire engineers and programmers soley on a temporary contract basis.

Posted by: David Grenier at June 19, 2009 10:24 AM

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