Innovation in Education

Where are all the science majors?

By David A. Kaplan, contributor

FORTUNE -- In a move to measure its workforce not too long ago, Nationwide Insurance surveyed its 36,000 employees at the time. Its CEO was in for a shock. The single largest employment category had nothing to do with insurance and was instead "technology." The story is told by Brian Fitzgerald, executive director of the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF), to dramatize the transformation of the U.S. workforce. At Nationwide, an entire upper tier of computer scientists had to be brought in from India because the company didn't have enough in Ohio. "You can be selling insurance or manufacturing cars," Fitzgerald says, "but almost every American corporation has been turned into a technology operation."

Nationwide (NFS) isn't alone. The number of computer science degrees awarded to U.S. citizens from 2004 to 2007 (the latest figures available) declined 27%, according to the National Science Board. But the shortfall isn't just in computer science. Neither universities nor high schools are preparing enough U.S. students in so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. While observers blame different causes -- lousy secondary schools, boring college courses, lazy students -- few deny a crisis exists.

For every new Ph.D. in the physical sciences, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, the U.S. graduates 50 new MBAs and 18 lawyers; more than half of those with bachelor of science degrees still enter careers having nothing to do with science. The ACT testing service says only 17% of high school seniors are both interested in STEM majors and have attained math proficiency. Even among students who begin college pursuing a STEM degree, only half wind up with one. Finding new STEM teachers has become especially urgent: As of two years ago, nearly 60% of U.S. workers with STEM degrees were 45 and older.

It used to be that universities didn't particularly worry about the number of STEM grads. But that was before the days of Google and the ravenous demand for technologists. Colleges are only starting to adapt. Calculus has long been known as a "STEM killer," so many schools are trying to get away from passive lectures and make students learn interactively with computers. Engineering schools are trying to introduce jazzier real-world problems into the curriculum. The Obama administration has focused on lower levels in the educational food chain. Earlier this year the President announced $250 million in federal spending and private investment to hire thousands of math and science schoolteachers.

For its part, BHEF has attempted to think anew about old assumptions, like the belief that smaller class size boosts student achievement. Working with BHEF, Raytheon (RTN, Fortune 500) systems engineers tried to gauge the effects of raising pay on attracting teacher talent; the analysis showed it might just result in higher pay across competing professions. Smaller classes, for example, may simply mean less qualified teachers get hired because of inadequate supply. Fitzgerald himself well understands the STEM challenge: In 1970 he started college as a chemistry major -- and graduated with a literature degree.  To top of page

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