The STEM Imperative: Science Education in America

Science education in America is an incredibly pressing issue; in his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama made it his key theme.  He stressed the need to lead the nation into a new Sputnik era in which the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—are popular and robust.1

This is because the STEM fields are incredibly important to our economy.  Although low-skill manufacturing jobs in America are declining, our economy is unique in the world for its highly innovative high-tech industry.  Designers and manufacturers of things like airplanes and healthcare technology are able to flourish in the US, where research-and-development funding is high and the world’s top universities continue to make exciting progress.  As the middle-classes of developing nations continue to grow, these high-tech products will be in higher and higher demand.  If we can continue to innovate rapidly and provide high-tech services competitively, our economy will remain strong.

However, in order to support this essential high-tech industry, the scientific literacy of our workforce needs to be excellent.  Unfortunately, as of now, this is far from the case.  In 2010 the PISA test was presented to 15-year olds in 65 different countries; the US ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 24th in math.2 China now produces far more doctorate degrees each year than the US does.3 Furthermore, the percentage of STEM degrees awarded in the US each year has been slowly declining for a decade.4 As of now, 16% of all college graduates major in a STEM field; in China, the ratio is 47%, in South Korea it is 38%, and in Germany it is 28%.5 If these trends continue, we will risk forfeiting our high-tech advantage to nations that out-educate us.  Already, we are seeing signs of this.  According to a report by the National Science Board in January of this year, the US has lost 28% of its high-tech manufacturing jobs since 2000.3 Clearly, drastic actions need to be taken in order to improve our scientific literacy, support our essential high-tech industry, and secure our economic future.  So what are the largest obstacles that face us, and what steps can be taken to overcome those problems and accomplish this goal?

One of the most dire problems is that American students are not as enthusiastic about math and science as students in Confucian nations.  Confucian nations assign huge importance to math and science proficiency, and top students enjoy the utmost respect from their peers and communities.  Nicholas Kristof observed this when visiting classrooms all across China; in these classrooms, students don’t admire the class clown or the jock—they admire the math whiz.6 That said, schools in these nations do not place emphasis on extracurricular development, which nurtures the creativity that is vital for innovative and groundbreaking science.  Still, these nations’ commitment to math and science proficiency is admirable, and if we cannot foster a similar commitment in the US, we risk lagging behind.

In addition, our politics and media diminish science’s stature.  Political radicalism has thrown even the most basic science, such as global warming and evolution, into doubt.  Before he was dismissed from Fox News, Glenn Beck broadcasted to millions of Americans that evolution is “ridiculous”, saying he had never seen “a half-monkey, half-person”. 7 Behavior like this is a travesty and it disadvantages us in the international competition for scientific dominance.

In all realms of society, science needs to be celebrated, not degraded.  Our schools need to start large, well-publicized programs that engage students, shock their communities, and generate admiration and prestige for the participants.  (An example is the Shell Eco-marathon, which challenges high-schoolers and college students to design ultra fuel-efficient vehicles.8)  And our media needs to stop denigrating science by throwing even the most fundamental scientific principles into question.

In addition to these measures, changes need to be made to our education system.  At the university level, far too many students—roughly 40%—give up on STEM majors, indicating instructional problems.9 To address this, universities are changing curricula, incorporating interactive technology into Calculus courses and jazzing up engineering projects.10 They are also attempting to increase instructional standards by providing scholarships, loan forgiveness, and higher pay for excellent science teachers.11

However, these solutions are limited.  At the college level, students’ interests are generally cemented, and it is difficult to compel students to switch to a STEM field.  It is clear that in order to truly attack the root of the problem, we need to generate enthusiasm for science when students are young.  As it stands, only 17% of high school seniors are both interested in STEM fields and proficient in math.10 This number needs to increase.

We need to hire dedicated science teachers and eliminate union provisions that make it difficult to fire bad teachers.  We also need to make science curricula more experiential and exciting.  Finally, we need to undertake daring educational experiments; schools like The Engineering Academy at Hoover High School have introduced engineering courses to high school students and have reported a drastic increase in the number of students that intend to study STEM fields in college.12

By enhancing science’s reputation and restructuring science learning in college and, more importantly, K-12, we can begin the vital task of improving the scientific literacy of our workforce and securing our economic future.



  1. Calmes, Jackie.  “Obama Calls for New ‘Sputnik Moment’.”  The New York Times.  Last modified December 6, 2010.
  2. Dillon, Sam.  “Top Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators.”  The New York Times.  Last modified December 7, 2010.
  3. Whoriskey, Peter.  “U.S. Losing High Tech Manufacturing Jobs to Asia.”  The Washington Post.  Last modified January 17, 2012.
  4. Lindsay, James.  “Is the United States Making Progress in STEM Education?”  Council on Foreign Relations.  Last modified February 13, 2012.
  5. US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics.  2009.
  6. Kristof, Nicholas.  “China’s Winning Schools?”  The New York Times.  Last modified January 15, 2011.
  7. Fisher, Max.  “Glenn Beck Says: No Proof of Evolution.”  The Atlantic Wire.  Last modified October 20, 2010.
  8. Shell Eco-Marathon home site.
  9. Drew, Christopher.  “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard).”  The New York Times.  Last modified November 4, 2011.
  10. Kaplan, David.  “Where are all the science majors?”  CNN Money.  Last modified June 9, 2010.
  11. Rotherham, Andrew.  “The Next Great Resource Shortage: U.S. Scientists.”  Time Magazine.  Last modified May 26, 2011.
  12. Conner, Mark.  “Yes, You Can Teach Engineering in High School.”  IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer.  2010.
  13. Image credit (public domain): “Biologist talk with students on how to plant.”  Public Domain Images.
  14. Image credit (Creative Commons): “Argonne lab education.” Wikimedia Commons.

Nate Tan is a rising second-year student at the University of Chicago. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.