Why We Need More Scientists
In the United States, more scientists are needed because of the considerable gap that is growing between the US and the rest of the world in terms of scientific abilities. Children, particularly girls, need to be encouraged at a young age to take up science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects.
According to Pew Research, America is nearing the bottom in terms of rank in relation to the 35 most developed countries in the world in STEM. In particular, math scores have plummeted in recent years. The study (see link) shows that 38% of high school students are operating at the lowest level of math achievement.
When asked to rate STEM education in the US, 46% of scientists stated that it was below average.
How do U.S. students compare with their peers around the world? Recently released data from international math and science assessments indicate that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations.
One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.
Younger American students fare somewhat better on a similar cross-national assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. That study, known as TIMSS, has tested students in grades four and eight every four years since 1995. In the most recent tests, from 2015, 10 countries (out of 48 total) had statistically higher average fourth-grade math scores than the U.S., while seven countries had higher average science scores. In the eighth-grade tests, seven out of 37 countries had statistically higher average math scores than the U.S., and seven had higher science scores.
Another long-running testing effort is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a project of the federal Education Department. In the most recent NAEP results, from 2015, average math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders fell for the first time since 1990. A team from Rutgers University is analyzing the NAEP data to try to identify the reasons for the drop in math scores.
The average fourth-grade NAEP math score in 2015 was 240 (on a scale of 0 to 500), the same level as in 2009 and down from 242 in 2013. The average eighth-grade score was 282 in 2015, compared with 285 in 2013; that score was the lowest since 2007. (The NAEP has only tested 12th-graders in math four times since 2005; their 2015 average score of 152 on a 0-to-300 scale was one point lower than in 2013 and 2009.)
Looked at another way, the 2015 NAEP rated 40% of fourth-graders, 33% of eighth-graders and 25% of 12th-graders as “proficient” or “advanced” in math. While far fewer fourth- and eighth-graders now rate at “below basic,” the lowest performance level (18% and 29%, respectively, versus 50% and 48% in 1990), improvement in the top levels appears to have stalled out. (Among 12th-graders, 38% scored at the lowest performance level in math, a point lower than in 2005.)
NAEP also tests U.S. students on science, though not as regularly, and the limited results available indicate some improvement. Between 2009 and 2015, the average scores of both fourth- and eight-graders improved from 150 to 154 (on a 0-to-300 scale), although for 12th-graders the average score remained at 150. In 2015, 38% of fourth-graders, 34% of eighth-graders and 22% of 12th-graders were rated proficient or better in science; 24% of fourth-graders, 32% of eighth-graders and 40% of 12th-graders were rated “below basic.”
These results likely won’t surprise too many people. In a 2015 Pew Research Center report, only 29% of Americans rated their country’s K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as STEM) as above average or the best in the world. Scientists were even more critical: A companion survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that just 16% called U.S. K-12 STEM education the best or above average; 46%, in contrast, said K-12 STEM in the U.S. was below average.
What’s Holding Kids Back?
One explanation is that US education has become so focused on exams and rote learning that the natural curiosity of children is being erased. Parents do it too. We get irritated when our kids ask us "Why?" all the time. We don’t know the answers, don’t want to find out, and don’t encourage our children to find out either.
But with an entire world of knowledge right at our fingertips thanks to the internet, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can support children as they seek answers. Teachers can foster an atmosphere in their classrooms where it is okay to ask questions without seeming silly in front of their peers.
Teachers can also be more approachable, being willing to answer questions after class, or by appointment with the student. Not every child is going to be an Einstein, but often the support and encouragement of a teacher or mentor can lead to great things.
Attracting Talent into Teaching
Another central issue is that very few STEM graduates go into teaching. Few would opt for teaching in primary school, but those are exactly the years at which a child’s imagination can be captured. In middle school, science is often treated as optional, and for the best students only, leaving the majority without access. In high school, a crammed timetable often means science gets shortchanged. It becomes difficult and something to be endured, not an exciting career choice.
This is especially true for girls. They tend to be steered towards arts subjects, not STEM. This gender bias has serious consequences in terms of career options for women, and career advancement if they do decide to pursue a STEM career.
The report "Why So Few?" gives a number of reasons for this, including unconscious bias and a lack of role models, and makes various suggestions as to how things can change for the better:
Growing the Economy
STEM helps grow the economy, which is a good thing for all. Competition and profitable new technologies, for example, stimulate profits and increase the value of companies and their stocks and shares. Japan, South Korea, and Germany are just three of the top countries which have led the way in terms of technological innovation. That innovation comes from those who dare to ask, "Why," and try to come up with solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.
Respect for Science
Science does not have all the answers, but scientists do actively seek knowledge and the truth. Recent years have seen a trend towards taking science out of school in favor of creationism, and disrespect for scientific findings such as vaccinations, climate change and even the moon landing.
Students taught creationism would be at a severe disadvantage if they ever wished to major in science at college. Continual exposure to science from a young age will help foster a more curious world view, making children eager to learn, and grow up doing something they are passionate about.
Hopefully, awareness of the issue is the first step. And any parent would do well to encourage the children to take an interest in science.