We Need Scientists and Engineers

Why Don’t More Americans Become Scientists and Engineers?

Every so often, a columnist in a major newspaper or magazine writes an expose about the lack of American science/engineering majors. A good percentage of science and engineering majors in American graduate schools are from foreign countries, and the shortage of American scientists and engineers causes National angst and concern, especially since science and engineering jobs are usually well paying and a ticket to a good future in a knowledge and science based 21st century.

Most writers speculate that two key causes are the unwillingness of American students to put in the hard work that is required in these fields, and/or the lack of financial incentives for the best and brightest to go into these fields. While these may be important contributors, I think there is a more basic reason – the lack of interesting, motivating, interactive science-engineering curricula programs in many, if not most, early childhood-elementary school (and middle and high school) programs in America!

Here’s one example. My nephew, a bright and curious twelve year old, is in the fifth grade in a good school system just outside Los Angeles. I recently spoke to him about his science program. He has science classes just two times a week, each class for about 50 minutes. Most of the class time is spent with the teacher lecturing about science vocabulary (which he says is boring). Sometimes the class reads the textbook together. Once a month, students do some type of experiment that actively involves him in the learning process (he likes this when it happens).

My nephew had a limited grasp on the scientific method (he didn’t know what the term meant!), nor did he have a good grasp of science investigation and inquiry strategies. And, of course, there were no opportunities for him to encounter engineering challenges and problems (e.g. STEM programs[i]) that would integrate science, mathematics, and other disciplines through interdisciplinary problem solving. 

This example of a “weak” science education experience is probably common to many, if not most students at the early childhood and elementary level. Instead of creating strong, hands-on/minds-on science education programs, much of the early childhood and elementary day is devoted to the usual priorities – reading, mathematics, and language arts. Why is this the case? There are probably a host of reasons for this situation, but a major one is that there are no incentives for schools or teachers to implement and support high quality, motivating science and engineering programs into our elementary and secondary schools.  The No Child Left Behind high stakes focus on reading and mathematics tests, and the limited budgets of many schools, have kept early childhood and elementary science programs to a minimum. Strong, interactive elementary programs, such as FOSS[ii] require funding to support the purchase and restocking of science kits, on-going teacher training, and frequent and reasonable amounts of  instructional time. Why bother implementing strong science and engineering programs when there are so few rewards and many downsides? 

Secondary science programs also have their problems. Many middle and high school science teachers use textbooks to “cover” science material using traditional instructional methods, and limit lab opportunities because of the associated costs, and because the typical 48 minute schedules make it hard to have labs that require a significant amount of time to set up and complete experiments. 

And forget engineering! While STEM programs are now frequently discussed in the education literature, it’s hard to find interdisciplinary, problem based engineering challenges as part of the actual curriculum at any level. 

No wonder our students have so little interest in or love for science and engineering!

There are some obvious changes that could significantly improve this situation. Greater efforts can be made by individual schools and teachers to incorporate hands-on science activities that promote interest in science at an early age. For example, early childhood teachers can grow plants and have students determine which plants grow better in different light and soils. Animals and fish can be observed, compared, and classfied. The causes for changes in daily temperature readings and the seasons can be discussed. Weather maps can introduce children to how weather forecasts are determined. Inexpensive microscopes can be used so that children can enjoy microscopically examining leaves, plants, bugs and so on. Books can be read to students about science. 

At the elementary level, special efforts can be made to purchase and regularly use curriculum materials that support interactive learning, experiments, and focused, sustained learning around key science concepts and scientific investigation over time. Key skills such as writing and reading for understanding can be incorporated into science study. 

Secondary schools and teachers can make greater efforts to give priority to laboratory experiences, doing experiments, and the use of science classroom materials that promote interactive learning, scientific inquiry, conceptual understanding, problem based learning, and general interest in science and engineering.  In addition to (or instead of) separate courses in biology, chemistry and physics, a focus on exploring interdisciplinary science and engineering challenges should be encouraged[iii]. Scheduling changes, such as the introduction of block scheduling, can go a long way to supporting in-depth science learning,  laboratory experiences, and interdisciplinary problem-based learning. 

Also, State and Federal incentives and funding should be used to encourage schools to make the implementation of strong K-12 science programs a priority goal. The  No Child Left Behind emphasis on reading, mathematics and standardized tests should be rethought and instead be used to support ways to promote successful science and engineering programs. Instead of spending so much Federal money on creating and implementing teacher evaluations and other similar programs, rigorous, motivating, hands-on science programs at early childhood and elementary levels, with commensurate professional development should be supported. Also, financial incentives that support the development and use of strong, motivating science lab experiences and interactive, inquiry and project based learning in secondary school science classrooms would be helpful. Success might be measured by how many schools improve science programs and science instruction, create greater interest in and more positive attitudes towards science, and increase student understanding of key science concepts and of the scientific method. Federal monies could also support and encourage schools to implement STEM programs at every level, sharing their programs with others through a National clearinghouse. This priority shift might also include the integration of reading, mathematics and writing concepts and skills into the science curriculum, strengthening these areas as well! 

In sum, a key step towards motivating students to strongly consider science and engineering careers would be for schools and teachers to prioritize the need for interesting, interactive hands-on and minds-on science and engineering curricula at all levels. Exemplary science programs currently exist, but providing financial and other incentives that would enable schools to implement such programs could have a profound effect on their actual implementation.

How do we encourage more of our students to become interested in science and engineering careers? Let’s implement the curricula programs that will not only interest students in these fields, but cause them to love science and motivate them to want to do more of it. Let’s be sure that our science and engineering curricula prepare many more students for careers in science, and interest them in solving 21st century science and technology challenges. Let’s begin to put America on a better educational track and more students on a strong career path in a 21st century America.



[i] STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics programs, generally thought of as problem-based learning around interesting,   interdisciplinary design challenges.

[ii] FOSS (Full Options Science Program), developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science, is a K-8 science program that stresses active science learning through inquiry, investigation, and analysis. More information can be found about this program at http://lhsfoss.org/index.html

[iii] For examples of the “grand challenges” of engineering today, go to the National Academy of Engineering website: http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/cms/8996.aspx