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The Need for Another Sputnik

The Need for Another Sputnik
December 7, 2006

The World Is Flat, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," and a slew of other books and reports make the case that for the American economy to improve or even keep its position in the decades ahead, the country will need a better educated populace, especially when it comes to math and science. No one can accuse politicians or college presidents of not giving enough speeches about the topic, but a poll released Wednesday suggests that the message may not be getting through to the public.

In fact, it seems that call centers in developing nations have made more of an impact on the public than have Ph.D.'s from those countries -- although their numbers are growing exponentially (including many educated in the United States). Asked why companies hire labor overseas, 85 percent said that the most important reason was cheap labor. Only 12 percent said that the reason is that sometimes that labor is more skilled.

The poll was conducted as part of the American Council on Education's Solutions for Our Future campaign, which is designed to build public support for education. The poll focused on math and science education and found only a limited sense that the public grasps their importance.

Generally, the public appreciates some of the message of the reports going out -- that the United States is likely to face heightened competition from other countries. And the public generally thinks those who do go into science and math deserve support and more scholarships. But as to whether more students should be encouraged to do so, and whether non-science students should graduate with more scientific knowledge, the public is ambivalent at best.

Noting the impact of Sputnik 50 years ago, David Ward, president of the ACE, said that "we need a better symbol or rallying cry" today. As of now, Americans aren't sure they want to learn more science, which they think of as "difficult, uninteresting or poorly taught."

In some respects, the poll results suggest that the public should be receptive to a message on the importance of science education. Americans surveyed think the United States is at the top of the global economy today, and yet is likely to falter. While few people believe that colleges and universities outside the U.S. are better than those in the U.S., the percentage who think American academe is similar in quality to institutions overseas (48 percent) is greater than those who assume that the United States is better (37 percent).

Those surveyed also had an extremely practical view of higher education.

Asked about the "ultimate goal" for a college education, here is the breakdown:

  • To obtain a particular degree: 6 percent
  • To become a more scholarly, educated individual: 14 percent
  • To develop personal, social and life skills: 10 percent
  • To enjoy the "college experience": 3 percent
  • To get a good job after graduation: 64 percent

Given all of that, it's not surprising that the public expressed support for science education in general terms, and backed the idea of providing scholarships for those who pursue it. But nudge more people to take science?

Asked if they think colleges require enough math and science, the public split evenly Yes and No. Asked if students should take more math and science, regardless of their major, 54 percent said Yes and 44 percent said No. And at the K-12 level, 56 percent said that math and science requirements should be toughened while 39 percent said that they should not. (Numbers don't round to 100 because of those who didn't answer various questions.)

The perception (many would say reality, given studies of the relative lack of grade inflation in science ) that science courses are more difficult than other subjects also has a big impact on why people don't enroll.

Asked to identify the main reasons students avoid math and science, here are the answers:

  • They think it is too difficult: 44 percent
  • They think it will hurt their grade-point average: 10 percent
  • They find it uninteresting: 17 percent
  • The subject material is not presented in an engaging way: 16 percent
  • They don't believe it will provide a good job after graduation: 10 percent

Ward of the ACE said that he hoped his group would set up a clearinghouse to help colleges share ideas about improving science education and attracting more students. But at the same time, he acknowledged that the survey showed real challenges.

The public doesn't understand -- and needs to understand -- that "some threshold minimum level" of math and science is needed in today's economy, he said.

 

 

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