Friday, July 19, 2013

Cass Sunstein is wrong on "the STEM crisis"

Thanks to my Thursday morning Wonkbook e-mail, I was subjected to a classic "STEM crisis" column by Harvard law professor and former White House staffer Cass Sunstein:
In recent years, a lot of people have been concerned about the relatively low numbers of science majors among American college students. The percentage of science and engineering graduates in the United States has been far below that in China and Japan. On various math and science tests, the performance of U.S. students has fallen below that of students in South Korea, Singapore, Japan, England, Finland, Israel, Australia and Russia. 
This is a real problem, because science majors can contribute to economic growth and because many of them end up with especially good jobs after graduation. In the employment market, students with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) can be at a comparative advantage. The relatively low number of American graduates in these fields has created what some people call “the STEM crisis.” 
...In 2012, Obama lamented: “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that — openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work.” But while computer-science enrollments are increasing, the number of science majors remains disappointingly low. 
Why is this? Are young Americans uninterested in science?
I won't belabor this issue, because you, dear reader, are very, very tired of me repeating myself. Let's just remember that when presidents and law professors talk about "science and technology", especially with reference to jobs, they're talking about computers and IT. It's even in his own column ("But while computer-science enrollments are increasing, the number of science majors remains disappointingly low") and yet, the explanation (rising wages, growing job opportunities in computer-related fields) still escapes him.

[The rest of the column might be worth your time, in that it's an exploration of the recent study that showed that when students who thought they would do well in science classes don't, they leave. You don't say! He goes on to blame state and local governments, which is strange, in my opinion.] 

10 comments:

  1. What's the point of training more PhD's in the US in the natural sciences when companies are convinced they can get as good of quality PhD's in China and India, where they can send the work to? Why does this thought seem to escape these idiots?

    One thing I would like to see is company management staff (including CEO's) being, by law, kicked out of the US if most of the work is done elsewhere. If they want to hire mostly cheap foreign labor let them live with them, I say. However, this will never happen, and for this reason I will continue to make most of my 401 K contributions in the American Stock market. Sure, I may lose me job due to cheap foreigh labor but in the end, I can be certain than american companies will scr*w their own workers to make a profit, so its a wise long term investment.

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    1. You have to consider the provenance of this piece. The guy is a law professor, he is in the business of training people who are doing the screwing - I don't think you'll doubt me if I say that behind every layoff of scientists there's a Harvard Law graduate. So it's only natural that he'd stick to "blame the victim" line of defense.

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  2. "Let's just remember that when presidents and law professors talk about "science and technology", especially with reference to jobs, they're talking about computers and IT."

    Reminds me of the infuriating situation in many of the old Borders stores where the science section always used to be named "Computers and Technology".

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  3. One of the things that annoys me is when people use data about US students not performing well on math and science tests to reach the conclusion that we need more scientists. I think what we should take from that data is that we need better math and science instruction at all levels, as part of a well-rounded curriculum, for everyone, especially for the people who *aren't* going to become scientists.

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  4. Agreed. But teaching bratty, recalicitrant high school students science is not easy. I know, I used to do it.

    If we had better behaved students you might draw some talented science types back to HS teaching, but most just want to teach college, where there is a huge glut of people wanting to teach science.

    Give me a switch and a law that says I can use it on a bratty high school student, and Ill go back to teaching them Chemistry.

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    1. What would be your strike price in teaching high school science again? Let's say that it would be non-tenured, subject to routine performance review via standardized test:

      95k? 120k?

      Gotta say, at 110k-120k in a coastal area, I'd be thinking hard about it.

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    2. In our local high school there's only one science teacher with Ph.D, unfortunately he also runs the science department so it's bit hard to tell how the doctorate degree figures into his $150k salary. But from the salary data I can tell that it takes about 10 years for a teacher with master's degree to clear 100k and you top out at 135k. To me that beats local community college with its 40-45k renewable one-year appointments hands down.

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    3. The power of 1) a well-off school district and 2) a strong union, one imagines.

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    4. No doubt, and I've been told that you don't exactly walk into a job like that off the street, if you know what I mean, but in silico, the opportunity is out there.

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  5. I live in fly-over-land, and I'd think Id go back to doing it for $80 K. It was pretty stressful work for me (I dont like bratty HS students), so my price is relatively high. Im happier right now making $45 K in an academic lab with my h-index of 15 and my long list of PI's who neglect me.

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