UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 2001
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Lagging K-12 math and science performance threatens nation's global competitiveness

By Mark H. Karwan
Dean, UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

gail's eighth-grade teacher told her mother that Gail wasn't doing well in mathematics. "That's okay," her mom said, "I wasn't good in math either." John's dad had a similar explanation after speaking with John's teacher. Too many good teachers at public, private and parochial schools hear similar things and struggle to help educate their students in math and science. Why should we care?
    In a few years, these students will be joining the workforce and competing in the world's economy, which today is driven by advances in engineering, science and technology. In global competition, innovation is our strongest asset, as other countries can produce things more cheaply. However, corporate leaders' number one concern about our ability to educate the producers and managers of technological innovation is the quality of K-12 education, and how this education prepares students for college study in engineering and the sciences. Here are a few statistics to help illustrate the problem.
girl with good grade     The United States does well in the number of 24-year-olds who hold college degrees, which is 33.4 percent, compared to the world average of 9.1 percent. Countries like Japan and the United Kingdom have similar percentages to the U.S.; Germany is somewhat lower at 23.9 percent; and the massive emerging economies of India and China are low by comparison, with less than 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
    However, let's look at engineering degrees. In China, over 45 percent of B.A./B.S. degrees are in engineering. Furthermore, Russia (19.9%), Japan (19.6%), Germany (18.7%), United Kingdom (9.3%) and the emerging, technologically driven economies of South Korea (21%) and Singapore (29.9%) all greatly exceed the United States' 5.4 percent. In fact, the global average is 13.8 percent!
    Meanwhile, to drive basic research and technological innovation in academia and industry, we are relying more and more on nonresident Ph.D.s. Today nonresidents earn almost one half of the Ph.D. degrees granted in engineering and computer science. At all levels we are producing so few computer science and engineering graduates that Congress has expanded the H-1B visa program, allowing more than 100,000 foreign workers annually to join U.S. companies whose progress is handicapped by the lack of U.S. graduates in these disciplines.
    At least Gail and John were encouraged to go to college, which means the odds of a job being available to them are twice that for non-college graduates, in good times and in bad. If they had graduated in engineering or technology, they would earn salaries almost 80 percent greater than the
 
boy at computer national average. The percentage of engineers in the workplace has grown slowly, from approximately 0.5 percent in 1900, to 1.0 percent in 1950, to 1.5 percent in 2000. However, this growth rate has stagnated for the past decade and has led to projections of a slippage in the dominance of the U.S. in the global economy.
    In an appearance at UB last year, former U.S. senator and astronaut John Glenn, who chaired the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, cited a number of studies that show a strong correlation between successful student achievement and teachers who majored and were certified in the corresponding subject, including math and science. The commission's report, "Before It's Too Late," pointed to the inadequate preparation of U.S. science and math teachers in K-12. Of the 21 industrialized countries studied, the United States ranked 19th in high school seniors' math abilities. So what are we doing to turn things around?
    National competitions and hands-on projects for groups of students in innovative problem solving are driving a renewed interest in technology in education. The University at Buffalo, for instance, just finished hosting the national solar-powered boat race competition for colleges and high schools at Delaware Park's Hoyt Lake. Massachusetts is the first state to adopt an engineering curriculum with a commitment to implement the "2001 Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework" in K-12 education over the next few years. All high school students will have a full year of technology/engineering to complement their full four years in the physical sciences, life sciences, and earth and space sciences.
boy with microscope     At UB, we have helped introduce several local school districts to an independently run national program called "Project Lead the Way," which helps train high schools in offering a five-course sequence of preengineering courses. UB Professor of Electrical
    Engineering David T. Shaw is involved in creating highly visual and interactive CD-ROM modules of the basic fields of technology; these modules are appropriate for self-paced as well as instructor-led learning at precollege levels.
    Perhaps, if these attractive interactive modules are used to complement current teaching methods, middle-school students like Gail and John may be motivated to concentrate in math and science-the keys to opening the doors to engineering and technology education and careers.

Karwan   A member of the UB faculty for 25 years and dean of the engineering school since 1995, Mark H. Karwan is a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Much of the insight and data for this article was gathered by Karwan as an active participant in the Council on Competitiveness in Washington, D.C.


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