Attracting Students to Math-and Science-Based Studies
“Our nation is at risk.” These provocative words opened one of the most important studies on American education ever written, the 1983 report of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Commission on Excellence in Education titled A Nation at Risk. “Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation,” the report declared, “is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world … the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people … If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Strong stuff. So where are we today? Particularly in the areas of mathematics, science, and technology, the evidence suggests that we may be even worse off than we were before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “dot com” bubble burst, and 9/11. Nationally, we are witnessing a steady decline in the number of young people who are interested in studying science and technology. Thirty years ago, the United States ranked third in the world in the number of science degrees granted. We are now ranked seventeenth. In Japan, 66 percent of undergraduates receive their degrees in science and engineering. In China, that number is 59 percent. In the United States, it is 32 percent. And no wonder. In a recent survey of scientific achievement of high school students from 41 nations, American students ranked almost last.
Whether it is outmoded curricula, a lack of qualified teachers, subject matter difficulty, educational practices that winnow people out rather than draw them in, or negative stereotypes about the work of scientists and engineers, our entire educational system must do a better job to arrest the nation’s growing vulnerability in science and technology. So much depends upon reversing this trend, including strengthening domestic security against foes increasingly determined to use technology against us, preserving our position as a global economic leader, and avoiding the destabilization of social inequality and racial division along a growing “digital divide.”
The challenge of developing a scientifically literate citizenry and a technologically prepared workforce is nowhere more daunting than in California. We are the nation’s leading science and technology state. Yet, even as our state has been the nation’s high-tech leader and is a wellspring of technological innovation from agriculture to telecommunications, from aerospace and defense to biotechnology and electronics, our educational system is failing to prepare students for scientific and technical careers critical to the state’s economy and social stability. Our universities are not graduating enough students in science and engineering to meet workforce needs; our community colleges are not graduating sufficient numbers of students who will transfer to four-year institutions and complete science and engineering degrees; and students from the K-12 system who do enter science and engineering baccalaureate programs often require substantial remediation.
We at Chico State cannot change these conditions by ourselves. But, as a place of public purpose and service, we are mindful of our responsibility to be engaged in helping solve our society’s problems. And that is exactly what we are doing. Through our MESA and MEP programs, for example, we provide precollegiate support and postsecondary academic assistance and scholarship funding to educationally disadvantaged students who are undertaking studies in math, science, engineering, and technology. We bring thousands of K–12 students and their teachers to campus each year to learn at the Hands-On Laboratory, the Minds in Motion program, Farm Camp, and FFA field days. We host a Science Education Colloquium for faculty throughout the CSU to strengthen science education teaching and curricula; we offer Project M.A.T.H. (Mathematics and Teaching on the Horizon), a biweekly seminar for our preservice student-teachers and area middle and secondary school math teachers; and we model interdisciplinary efforts for the CSU to increase the number of math and science teachers at the middle and secondary school levels. We are engaged with community partners to build a natural history museum, a principal purpose of which is to bolster science education. Perhaps, most impressively, especially given the steady decline in science and engineering baccalaureate degrees conferred in California higher education for almost two decades, such majors at Chico State have actually increased nearly 50 percent during the last 10 years.
Because so much is at stake, the imperative for science and technology education reform in our state and nation is a critical public policy issue. It commands special attention in the governor’s budget and the compact with the CSU and UC. As the above partial list of our efforts indicates, Chico State is in the vanguard of this reform effort. What connects our efforts, though, is more than a common problem. We are guided by a shared commitment to make science and technology more appealing to students. Through the example of our faculty, administrative leadership, alumni, and school partners, we emphasize that the study of science and technology is filled with curiosity, challenge, discovery, and collegiality. We think this is a message that will attract students to math- and science-based areas of study. Further, we believe this is a message that will attract students to come and pursue such studies at Chico State.
—Paul J. Zingg