One of the highlights of my year each spring is getting to meet the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS) competition. Spending time with these high school seniors, I can't help but feel optimistic about the future of American ingenuity. Some of them may win Nobel prizes, Fields Medals, National Medals of Science, and MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grants." They may be teenagers, but the brilliance of their work makes my own PhD dissertation look dim in comparison.
But their achievements do not tell the whole story about the American education system. The Intel STS finalists are the exception, not the rule. In fact, American K-12 students are consistently outperformed by their foreign counterparts on international math and science assessments.
ERODING RESOURCE.We also have a graduation gap: While the number of jobs requiring technical skills is increasing, fewer American students are entering -- and graduating from -- degree programs in science, math, and engineering.
Why does this matter? Science and technology are the engines of economic growth and national security in the U.S., and we are no longer producing enough qualified graduates to keep up with the demand. These graduates -- like the Intel STS students -- represent a resource vital to American competitiveness that is eroding at home while being produced more rapidly and efficiently abroad.
For the past three decades, about one-third of U.S. bachelor's degrees have been granted in science and engineering. Asian nations far outstrip that figure, with China at 59% in 2001, South Korea at 46% in 2000, and Japan at 66% in 2001.
LOSING GROUND. Of those degrees, the number awarded in engineering also varied greatly: In China engineering accounted for 65% of all science and engineering degrees; in South Korea for 58%; and in Japan for 29%. In the U.S. that figure is less than 5%.
How did we get here? A report released earlier this year by Achieve, a nonprofit organization that helps states raise academic standards, contends that we have institutionalized low performance through low expectations. Our high schools expect only a small number of students to take the advanced math and science courses such as algebra and geometry.
Another Achieve study showed that much of the math content on state high school exit exams is basic at best -- similar to material covered by foreign students in the eighth grade.
GET INVOLVED. America's economic future lies with its next generation of workers and their ability to develop new technologies and products. This means we must strengthen math and science education in the U.S.
We must increase the number of students who can compete on a global level by, for example, adopting the goal of doubling the number of engineering graduates each year from some 50,000 to 100,000 or more. This requires the support of elected officials, but changes of this scale cannot occur without action from the business community.
Many members of the National Governors Assn. have committed to raise standards in high schools. But they cannot do it alone. We in the business community can and should help.
At Intel (INTC), we've made the commitment to improving American education a top priority, and we invest about $100 million a year in education programs -- almost $1 billion to date. More businesses must get involved, not just because it's the right thing to do but because it will improve our bottom lines -- and the nation's -- by creating a deeper pool of qualified talent at home.