U.S. encourages increased study of math, science

Rachel Abbey

Studies suggest the United States needs to increase its focus on technology-related fields to bolster the country’s economy and national defense.

“They’re recognizing the deficit compared to other countries in the number of math, science, technology and engineering degrees,” said Patricia Myers, director for government relations. “They’re looking at a number of areas to try to address the shortage because it affects our whole nation. The federal government is aware of it. The business leaders are certainly aware of it.”

The U.S. economy has become one of innovation, rather than knowledge, Myers said.

“If you look at other countries such as China and India, they’re focusing on math, science, engineering and technology, and the leaders in our country are finding out we need to do the same thing,” she said.

The United States must try to create the most innovative products to remain competitive in the global economy, said John West, vice president for Research and dean of Graduate Studies. From improved cell phones to new polymers, inventions are based in science and technology.

The tie between higher education and technology is vital, said James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lewis wrote “Waiting for Sputnik: Basic Research and Strategic Competition,” a report addressing the country’s under-funding of technology-based fields.

The report argues that even though there is no situation such as the Russian launch of Sputnik in the 1950s or the Cold War to rush improvements of technology, it should not be ignored.

“Universities produce the bodies and the ideas that we need to remain competitive,” he said.

The business community is beginning to recognize the math and science fields’ importance to the economy, said Garrison Walters, vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and Economic Advancements for the Ohio Board of Regents. However, the education community has been concerned for awhile.

“Americans are very competitive in math and science in the elementary years, but in the middle school years, students lose interest,” Walters said.

The issue first arose in the 1980s, he said, with a shortage of faculty in the science and technology fields. It is difficult to solve because it requires teachers, students and parents who recognize the importance of science and technology to the economy.

Students need to be exposed to science and mathematics even while in middle school, Myers said. Those years influence the types of courses students choose to take in high school, and high school provides the base for college studies.

Ohio’s project Discovery aims to improve math and science education, Walters said. One way it does this is to train middle school-level teachers.

Since Sept. 11, the amount of foreign students attending U.S. colleges has declined, causing an even greater need for U.S. students to fill that void, Walters said. Also, countries such as China are trying to keep their own students and faculty in the country and strengthen their economy, rather than sending them overseas.

Many possible programs at the state and federal levels could encourage students to enter math, science, technology and engineering fields. The Department of Defense offers a Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation, or SMART, scholarship to students studying fields such as chemical engineering, oceanography and geosciences. Currently, Congress is looking at making this a permanent offering.

A bill in the Ohio House of Representatives could offer a tax waiver to students studying certain science and technology fields if they work in the state after graduation, Myers said.

“Business and industry are begging for people with these skills,” Myers said. “When I was little, my dad always said if you’re good in math and can figure out a solution to a problem, you can apply it to anything you do. It’s how to think and plan and address a problem.”

The math and science fields affect more than just the U.S. economy, Lewis said. National security also relies on technological advances.

“We’ve under-invested in this for decades, and sometimes it takes awhile for the damages to show up,” Lewis said.

“The sooner we can invest in research funding, the better.”

The United States spends a lot on the sciences, Lewis said, but defense-related sciences such as physics, aeronautics and engineering have been lacking. Health-related sciences are more marketable and have received more funding overall.

“(After Sputnik,) we realized a lead we took for granted was not as much as we thought it was,” West said. “I think that’s happening again. We look at our competition and they are putting a lot of their income into math and science research education.”

The competition is catching up quickly, West said. While budgets for university research have grown, they have not increased percentage-wise.

Kent State often works across academic disciplines, creating unique collaborations and pushing limits, West said. The Liquid Crystal Institute combines fields such as physics, chemistry, biology and mathem atics, while the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence combines psychology, political science and criminal justice.

Contact administration reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].