Today, a hard look at science and engineering
education. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
You've heard so much about
the state of science education in America. So, is
there fire behind all the smoke? Yes, there is.
First, the high schools: our students are dead last
among developed nations in biology. In chemistry
and physics we're behind all but one or two. We're
in last place in mathematics.
Only 6 percent of our high school students go on to
study engineering. In Japan that number is 20
percent. Worse yet, even our shabby 6 percent is
slipping away. At the PhD level, we face disaster.
The PhD supply is dropping twice as fast as the
demand is rising. We expect a 35-percent shortfall
by the year 2000. To make matters worse, almost
every PhD who'll graduate before 2000 has already
picked his college major.
We'd be worse off still if we didn't turn to the
third world for PhDs. Our own students shy away
from graduate school, so we strip Asia of her best
and brightest students. We give them an education
and citizenship in exchange for making our machines
run. Half our new engineering PhDs are immigrants.
Without them our colleges and hi-tech industry
would be in real trouble.
The problem feeds itself. Our students begin to
doubt they belong in college science programs. They
wonder why half their science faculty is
foreign-born. Back in the high schools, we have a
hard time finding physics teachers.
Women and minorities ought to be a rich source of
new engineers. There, too, our record is terrible.
Thirty percent of undergraduates are minorities.
Yet in the engineering and science work force they
number only 5 percent. And those numbers aren't
improving. Women engineering enrollment reached 16
percent in the early '80s. It has sputtered ever
since. In the technical work force, women number
only 11 percent.
Of course, crisis harbors opportunity. Opportunity
is enormous for young people who want to live a
rich intellectual life. The job market will be
superb for good engineers and scientists in AD
2000. But what teenager gives a rap about that?
High-school students have better vision than that.
They don't ask, "How much will I earn?" They ask
"Will my work give me pleasure?"
And that's where we fail them. We give an adult's
answer to a child's question. We talk to them about
earning a living, not about pleasures of the mind.
We forget to tell students that engineering and
science really promise exactly what they want most.
We fail to talk about the mystery of an open
question -- of the wonder of being first to create
a new thing. And for that, we're slipping into deep
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Changing America: The New Face of Science and
Engineering, Interim Report of the Task Force
on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science
and Technology. Washington, D.C.: 1988.
International Science and Technology Data Update:
1988, Special Report NSF 89-307.
Washington, D.C.: The National Science Foundation,
Atkinson, R,C, Supply and Demand for Scientists and
Engineers: A National Crisis in the Making.
Science, Vol. 248, 27 April 1990, pp.
Bloch, E., Education and Human Resources at the
National Science Foundation. Science,
Vol. 249, 24 August 1990, pp. 839-840.
Dertouzos, M.L., Lester, R.K., and Solow, R.M.,
Made in America: Regaining the Productive
Edge. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989.
What's it Like to be a Woman Engineer?
Engineering Education News, Dec. 1989,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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