James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Is the United States Making Progress in STEM Education?

by James M. Lindsay
February 13, 2012

President Barack Obama pumps air into the Extreme Marshmallow Cannon designed by Joey Hudy in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/courtesy Reuters)


Last week President Obama held a science fair at the White House. More than 100 students showed up. So too did Bill Nye the science guy. The student-crafted projects ranged from a new cancer therapy to a marshmallow cannon.

So why is the leader of the free world hosting a science fair, his second so far in office? To help celebrate young people who excel in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and to encourage more kids to follow their lead. As the president said at the fair, educating today’s students in STEM subjects will help “America compete for the jobs and industries of the future.” Indeed, a just released report by the president’s Council of Advisers in Science and Technology concluded that American businesses will require one million additional graduates with STEM degrees over the next ten years to stay competitive internationally.

Obama and his advisers are not alone in calling for more STEM education. Bill Nye says the United States must invest in STEM to “remain the world leader in technological innovation.” Silicon Valley Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA) is working to create an Office of STEM Education in the Education Department. Florida Governor Rick Scott has promised to make STEM education a priority at all levels in Florida institutions.

What worries this diverse array of opinion leaders is captured in the story told about Steve Jobs’s reply when President Obama asked why Apple had located a plant in China rather than in the United States. After noting that Apple needed 30,000 engineers to run the factory, Jobs said, “You can’t find that many in America to hire.”

So how is America doing at turning out STEM majors? Any signs of significant improvement? As the two charts below suggest, no.

The total number of engineers has risen in recent years, but it remains below the peak number reached in the early 1980s (Chart 1). But when you take into account the fact the number of college students has grown sharply over the past three decades—in large part because of demographic trends—the relative number of undergraduates majoring in engineering has declined (Chart 2). Meanwhile, computer science majors have followed a boom-and-bust cycle over the past three decades, no doubt reflecting the boom-and-bust cycle in the high-tech industry.

So if political leaders from both political parties are banging the drum on the importance of producing more graduates in STEM majors, why aren’t we seeing more? It’s not that entering college students aren’t trying STEM majors. They are. It’s that once they get a taste of college-level STEM work, many of them opt for different majors.

Why the high attrition rates in STEM fields? Lots of reasons are offered: STEM courses are hard; teacher quality is often sub par; grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences attracts students looking to maximize their GPA; and mathematically inclined students see bigger paychecks to be had by majoring in fields like finance and consulting.

In all, we have three decades of experience that suggests that hosting science fairs and praising the virtues of STEM subjects isn’t likely to produce more STEM majors. Changing the trends in these two charts will require investing significantly more in grants and financial aid for students who chose to major in STEM subjects. That will cost a lot of money, something that cash-strapped local, state, and federal governments don’t have in abundance. But it is the kind of investment the United States will need to make if it wants to stay competitive.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Tony

    STEM subjects are the backbone of our country and its technology. Government should invest in funding for students who are in STEM subjects. That would open up an advancement over other countries.
    Also, should provide incentives for foreign students whom are graduate from American universities, so they can stay here after they graduate.
    The growing technologies are: Biomedical engineering, aerospace, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, fiber optics, mechanical engineering, telecommunication engineering , civil and structural engineering.

  • Posted by Ole Holsti

    We really see the problem here in Utah. The Demo. candidate for governor in 2010 proposed tightening up science and math requirements for high school graduation. He was immediately blasted by his opponent [and landslide winnner] as a “religious bigot” as this proposal would cut into “seminary” time–that’s when students can leave campus for LDS [Mormon] indoctrination. To the overwhelmingly dominant LDS [80% of the legislature], seminary is the most important part of the school day for students.

  • Posted by Chunyan

    In the past century, the US saved so much cost from importinghigh – level talents in STEM. As the developing countries upgrade the life standards and attracting polices, the advantages will disappear. To keep the competitiveness for the USA, it is critical strategy to develop STEM degree students asap.

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