Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Urban Institute Holds Briefing on Science and Engineering

The Urban Institute recently hosted the briefing, Houston, Do We Really Have a Problem Here? A New Look at Science and Engineering in America. Hal Salzman, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, presented data from his new report, "Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence, Quality and Workforce Demand." Other reports analyzing global science and engineering education and the impact on the workforce claim that U.S. students perform much worse than their international peers, that interest in science and engineering among both high school and college students has fallen off and that a shrinking number of students receive degrees in these fields. Salzman's report directly rebuts these three claims.

Salzman's study also reassesses the well-known standings produced by two major evaluations, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and finds that "statistically insignificant variations in test scores misrepresent performance differences among nations." Using this approach, the U.S. scores fair much better.

In addition, Salzman's report notes the increasing numbers of American students participating in and graduating in STEM-related fields in high school and college. Between 1990 and 2004, the overall percentage of U.S. students taking engineering and science courses increased from 45 to 60 percent, and although the United States is not the top-ranked country in math and science performance, it has shown consistent improvements in participation and achievement over time. However, Salzman did caution that despite American students' solid standing overall, large segments of the school population fare quite poorly and that the low performance of the least-skilled students should be of great concern to policy makers.

William Bates of the Council on Competitiveness also presented and suggested that problems faced by U.S. competitiveness are a result of the globalization of industries and a lack of innovation in America. Bates explained that countries with large populations, like China, facilitate innovation in science and engineering very well. Organizations seeking innovative approaches and products will be drawn to wherever that innovation exists. To maintain a foothold in international competitiveness, Bates points to the need for a catalyst to motivate science and engineering innovation within the U.S., much like that provided by the launch of Sputnik in the 1950s and 1960s.

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