Careers in science and other technical fields fail to attract top graduates
There is widespread concern that one of the greatest threats to the nation's global competitiveness and prosperity is its failure to educate and prepare enough students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields. But new research suggests that lack of attractive career opportunities, not preparation, is the reason Americans opt to pursue less technical fields.
The 2007 report by the National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, inspired major education policies when it decried the state of math and science education in U.S. schools and warned of dire consequences if the United States failed to get more serious about better preparing more students in those areas.
More recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified before a meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) that students in the U.S. are "stagnating" behind their peers in other countries when it comes to academic achievement in science and math. Duncan and other experts were invited to provide the council with insight as it prepares analysis and recommendations intended to guide the Obama administration in efforts to improve STEM education.
A new study, however, by a pair of researchers at Rutgers and Georgetown University, says that policy initiatives that focus on increasing the quantity and performance of STEM students are misguided.
The provocative report, Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline, challenges the perception that the U.S. is at a disadvantage compared to other nations when it comes to math and science performance. It purports that the U.S. is producing an ample supply of high-achieving STEM graduates but failing to provide appealing career opportunities to retain them in those fields.
The researchers analyzed 30 years of data in an effort to uncover trends in the rate of students leaving and staying on a STEM pathway at three transition points: college graduation, first job attainment and mid-career.
They found that, contrary to popular belief, the pipeline has produced a steady number of graduates from 1972 through 2005. Of interest was that the highest-achieving students began opting out of STEM pathways in greater numbers in the 1990's and being recruited into other fields. The researchers conclude that the data shows that the threat to American competitiveness is not that schools are not preparing students, but that there are not enough incentives to make a future in these fields seem attractive, perhaps in terms of job wages or stability.
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