STEMming the Tide

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently announced that the list of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees qualifying for extended visas has been expanded to include drug design, mathematics and computer sciences, and other disciplines. This means foreign students can remain in the U.S. for up to 17 months on an extended training program.

Why do we need these imported scientists? Consider that less than 20 percent of American university students earn degrees in science and engineering, compared to more than half of Chinese students, as detailed in a Department of Defense publication, partly from a reduction of about one-third in research funding since the 1970s. In addition, the end of Sputnik-era funding in STEM fields and education has led to a significant reshuffling of educational priorities.

Days Gone By

The 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA) provided US$1 billion over four years to be infused in STEM education, particularly to help academically capable students without the financial means to pursue further education, as Jennifer Jolly reported in 2009. Sadly, the STEM education initiatives of 2006 were valued at less than half the NDEA-era funding levels when adjusted for inflation, or about $3 billion.

The NDEA initiatives were designed to funnel academically talented students into STEM fields. Unfortunately, this focus may seem inappropriate in an era where inclusiveness is more highly valued than quality.

Furthermore, in the intervening 50 years, educational discipline declined sharply overall. In a typical semester, the average student spent only 12-13 hours per week studying, or about half the time of a 1960 student, according to a study reported recently in The New York Times.

Why should students work harder? The same study also showed that 36 percent of students who reported studying five or fewer hours per week still maintained an average grade point average (GPA) of 3.16.

For 20 years, there has been a marked trend toward grade inflation — rewarding the same achievements with higher grades. Students taking Principles of Management (managing behavior in organizations) coursework saw an increase in average GPA from 3.12 to 3.30, while students of General Chemistry 1 really got smarter, with average GPAs shooting from 1.91 to 2.72. If our chemistry students are so much more talented now, why do we have a shortage of scientists?

Open Arms

Have we sacrificed our national leadership in STEM initiatives to a general trend toward lowering the bar? Learning metrics focused on process instead of results have propagated a general aversion to fields where right answers do exist — the very foundation of STEM analysis. When schools promote ambiguous feel-good values like “partnership learning” at the expense of a disciplined education in rigorous analysis, a population with strong mathematical skills is the collateral damage.

To summarize the problems: We reduced funding for academically talented students to enter science while we reduced general science and development funding. Meanwhile, our university students get more bang for their study buck, spending less time with their books to earn higher grades.

The loss of discipline has led to a population without the mathematical rigor to tackle quantitative analysis. As a result, we have to flex our immigration policy so we can import analytical skills.

The 20 years of missed opportunities to invest in education will lead to another 20 years of a shortage in trained labor. Thus, to maintain the same level of national innovation, our immigration policies must bend to accommodate our needs.

Today, we can start to reverse the slide by enhancing basic mathematical skills at all levels, and funding those students with an aptitude for analysis to seek careers in STEM fields. In the interim, expect to see increased incentives to retain foreign talent. We can only hope that they will stay.

Andrea Belz

Andrea Belz is the principal of Belz Consulting and the author of The McGraw-Hill 36 Hour Course in Product Development. Belz acts as a product catalyst, specializing in strategies that transform innovation into profits. She can be reached at andrea-at-belzconsulting-dot-com. Follow her on twitter at @andreabelz.

1 Comment

  • This past graduation season Eli Weisel was interviewed on public television and said that many things we do have put us back in the Middle Ages if not worst. How to fix it? "We must invest in education in our very young NOW."

    I think much of what you say in your article to be real and now. This country has always opened the doors to migrants and well educated, alternatively; the US has stopped investing in our own natural born citizens and children.

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