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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:33 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:33

Since the days of Sputnik, a chorus of pessimists has warned about a crisis brewing in America’s science education and technology industry infrastructure. One of the most recent incarnations of this phenomenon came in 2006, when a Congress-commissioned report, provocatively titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,”predicted an erosion of U.S. leadership in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics(STEM) fields.

There’s just one problem: that prediction is not supported by the evidence. America is the nation of MIT and Cal Tech, of Apple and Google, of Mark Zuckerberg and Chad Hurley. That concrete educational and commercial background, combined with qualitative advantages like English serving as the lingua franca of both the Internet and peer-reviewed scientific journals, helps ensure the United States is likely to remain the world’s leader in STEM education and industry for years to come.

However, if the United States still has all these advantages, why did American fourth-graders rank below students from Kazakhstan in math — and on the same level as Latvian students in science — in a 2007 international test of students?

The answer came at the end of September, when the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) pre-released a draft of an upcoming report titled “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.”

According to that report, as with many things in this country, there are two Americas. There is the majority of America, which leads the world in science education and industry, and then there are the black, Latino, South Asian and poor, rural white minority populations who remain excluded from the country’s excellent STEM institutions.

“If you’re not educating all of your students who have the potential to be in STEM carriers, if you’re not involving your whole population, and the fastest-growing part of your population is the group not involved in STEM, you have a problem,”said Lorelle Espinosa, the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Skewed testing?

The metrics used by international tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) — since they look at the average and not the mode —conceal both the high- level achievement of most Americans, and just how bad the situation has deteriorated for underrepresented minority students and workers. Those test scores are more misleading than helpful, and help create false comparisons between very different countries.

When the TIMMS score is broken down by ethnic group, a stark pattern emerges. According to the new NAS report, white and Asian students score alongside the highest scores in the world, ranking as equals to fourth-graders in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan — while African-American students produce math scores closer to fourth-graders in the Ukraine or the Republic of Georgia.

“In the U.S., kids come from families that have widely varying parental education levels and income levels, and go to schools with widely varying resources, and that affects their scores on international tests. There’s nothing new there,” said Jim Hosek, and economic analyst at the RAND Corporation, and a coauthor of “U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology,” a RAND study that reevaluated the conclusions of the Gathering Storm report.

The new NAS study also shows how the differences in those lower grades persist from grade school through the rest of schooling. According to the report, minorities make up 28.5 percent of the national population, but only represent 17.7 percent of the country’s graduate school population, and only 5.4 percent of its STEM doctorate graduates. However, in interviews, minority students expressed a desire to pursue careers in the STEM fields at a frequency equal to their white and Asian peers.

School problems become work problems

Naturally, a deficit in minority STEM students ultimately produces a deficit in minority STEM employees in the work force. According to the new NAS report,  “underrepresented minority groups comprised 28.5 percent of our national population in 2006, yet just 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering occupations (academic and nonacademic).”

“If you want to get highly skilled individuals, you have to start very early, because the gaps appear very early on,” said Titus Galama, a management scientist at the RAND Corporation and the other coauthor of the “U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology” study.

No one is quite sure how the diversity gap has affected STEM industry in the U.S., since statistics measuring the international competitiveness of America’s STEM industries don’t seem skewed by lack of minority participation in the same way as the educational test scores.

This is due in part to an oversaturation in the STEM sector. Even though 13 million workers in the U.S. job market have undergraduate degrees in STEM fields, only 4 million of them actually work in the STEM industries, said Hosek. Additionally, an increased demand for STEM professionals in recent years has not resulted in an increase in the wages for workers with STEM degrees, which indicates that the U.S. produces more science and engineering majors than science and engineering companies can absorb.

However, due to changes in U.S. immigration policy, that oversaturation may not last. Many graduate students and STEM workers are foreign-born citizens who choose to settle in the U.S. If immigration policy makes it more difficult for those students and employees to stay in the U.S., then America will have to turn to homegrown talent to fill the gap.

Or, the new NAS study said, “if the uncertainty about the future participation of international students suggests we need to ensure we draw on all demographic sources, the dramatic changes in the demographics of the domestic population, especially the school-age population, suggest that the problem is all the more urgent.”

Due to America’s strength in STEM education and industry, the U.S. can fill those gaps, but only by involving more of the population in math and science education.

“The capacity to be great in STEM is here. The talent is here, the knowledge is here, what you need is societal shift,” said Espinosa.

“If we don’t educate all of our citizens, we’re never going to reach our goals.”

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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