Letters to the Editor

Science Education: One Size Does Not Fit All

August 09, 2011

To the Editor:

Based on principles of supply and demand, we should have few if any majors in theater or philosophy; based on principles of pay and incentives, why should anyone enter teaching or nursing? And yet people gravitate to these fields, as well as to science, mathematics, and engineering, as often driven as much by the passion to create, to explore, and to know as by the opportunity to earn a living.

Hal Salzman and B. Lindsay Lowell ("A Size That Fits All for the Science-and-Technology Pipeline," The Chronicle, August 1) revisit the issues they raised in their 2007 book, Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand. And we would admonish them in the same ways that we did before: disaggregate your data, and then let's talk.

Not until the penultimate paragraph of their essay do they acknowledge the demographic reality that those historically underparticipating in science and technology are vulnerable to subpar K-12 education and cultural practices that discourage women and minorities. Curiously, family wealth, which affects a student's ability to pay for college, goes unmentioned. Women's participation in the science and technology work force, for example, is the same as a decade ago—24 percent—and their salaries continue to lag behind men's by 14 percent.

The researchers would do well to consult a presentation given by Robert M. Groves, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum in May 2011. "The America That U.S. Science Inhabits" shows the implications of shifting demographics for those who are concerned about the work force of the future. The growing segments of the U.S. population are not necessarily participating in education at the same levels or choosing science and engineering fields, Mr. Groves says. This underscores a 2011 National Academies study, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation, which documents the "strong connection between increasing educational attainment in the United States and the growth in and global leadership of the economy."

Providing an adequate supply of "workplace ready" science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals requires applying what we have learned from interventions already tested, such as professional science-master's programs, internships, and co-ops, as well as incorporation of undergraduate research projects focused on real-world problems. Yes, this is the challenge of effective pedagogy and providing opportunities for students to see what science, technology, engineering, and mathematics look like beyond the academy.

Without careful attention, analysts can be led to assume that one size fits all for the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics work force of the future, when in fact it does not. A more nuanced discussion and analysis is clearly warranted. Thus, we offer a different conclusion: the pipeline is not OK for many citizens—a challenge compounded for universities that educate the lion's share of future scientists and engineers and that seek to diversify their faculties.

Daryl E. Chubin
Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity

Shirley M. Malcom
Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs
American Association for the Advancement of Science