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Handwriting on the wall
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Forsyth County News
There is an old riddle that asks you to assume that you want to travel a total distance of 2 miles and average 60 miles per hour. If you go the first mile at 30 miles per hour, how fast do you have to go for the second mile?

The answer is that it’s too late. To average 60 miles per hour, you have to complete the course in two minutes. But at 30 miles per hour, you have already taken the two minutes to get through the first mile.

There are many situations in real life that echo this pattern. For example, declining populations and reproduction rates can reach a point where recovery is virtually impossible. One has to anticipate and take action before reaching the point of no return. We may be fast approaching such a point relating to the economic and political leadership position we have held in the world. Although there are many external threats, the problems to which I am referring are strictly internal, and wholly within our control. The focal point? Science and engineering!

Over the past century, the United States has moved from an agrarian nation to the world’s greatest manufacturing power and then into a service economy. This transformation was sustained, at every step, by scientific breakthroughs, the applications of new technology and a creative and inventive spirit that pervaded all aspects of economic and commercial life. We became the leading fount for innovative ideas. Our universities set standard for all others to emulate, and the research environment created by them, businesses and government became the envy of every other nation. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners came to study and work, many staying on to make this country their home.

But all this is changing. As other economies around the world grow and opportunities back home increase, more and more of those who come here to learn are going home and taking that learning with them. U.S. corporations have moved research, design and development operations abroad, not only because those markets are growing, but because of the native talent, often available at bargain rates compared to the U.S.
Most significant, however, are the trends in science and engineering education. We must maintain our technological edge if we are going to succeed, and there is ample evidence to show that we are in jeopardy. Like the riddle above, the time factor is quickly eroding. How long does it take to produce a productive scientist or engineer? It starts with a basic foundation in math and science -- in grade school. If young people are not excited and turned-on by such pursuits, the pipe-line dries up, and recovery becomes extremely difficult, particularly as our competitors are moving rapidly in the opposite direction.

Let’s first look at K-12. The National Science Board recently reported that U.S. 15-year-olds placed 16th out of 25 countries in science and 19th in math (the PISA tests). Data for Europe and the Western Hemisphere compiled by the OECD ranked U.S. students as 17 out of 30 in science and 24th in math. The most recent TIMSS (Trends in Math and Science Study) test ranked U.S. 8th graders 17th in science and 23rd in math out of 41 countries, and 12th graders as 16 & 19, respectively. U.S. Department of Education data, gathered under No Child Left Behind testing, shows US 12th graders who are “proficient” in math and science as less than 20 percent. This is deplorable.

Interestingly, 4th graders do better than their older counterparts. That seems to indicate a major breakdown between elementary school and high school. Commenting on this pattern, the U.S. Commissioner of Education cited three problem areas: lack of a strong curriculum, particularly in the middle school level (where students in many other countries are already into advanced topics in math and science); textbooks that treat the subjects superficially; and many teachers assigned to teach these subjects who lack appropriate training and certification. This was echoed in the NSB report which found that only 40 percent of the 5th grade teachers teaching science and math were certified in these fields. That number did jump to 80 percent in the 8th grade.

So a major part of the problem is getting students into the pipeline -- building competence in mathematics and stimulating interest in science. Too often schools are not intellectually demanding enough and students are neither challenged nor inspired to learn.

Let’s turn to higher education. Approximately 1/3 of the bachelors degrees awarded in the United States are in Science and Education. Put this into perspective against Japan’s 63 percent and China’s 53 percent. Of all the bachelors degrees awarded in these fields, worldwide, China now produces 21 percent. The U.S. figure is 11 percent. We are sorely lagging.

Finally, there is the impact of foreign students. In 2007, 4 percent of U.S. bachelors degrees were awarded to students here on visas. At the masters, it jumped to 24 percent, at the doctoral level to 33 percent and at post doctoral studies, 57 percent. As already mentioned, today, a much larger percentage are returning home after completing their studies and possibly a few years of work, to pursue opportunities at home, many of which are provided by U.S. companies.

What this all means is that we are in serious jeopardy of losing our leadership position, particularly when it comes to the innovation that is so important to sustain our economy. The problem cannot be fixed overnight. We must reach and inspire elementary school and high school students in order to meet the challenge. We are looking at years of lead time. And at the same time we dally, countries like China and India are moving ahead at full speed. The handwriting is on the wall. We must read it, recognize it for what it truly is, and then get busy immediately to train our teachers, modify our curriculum and truly reform our educational system.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at