Posted by Tara Smith on December 16, 2005 01:50 AM

Summit Lists Ways–but Not Means–to Strengthen Science

In an unusual show of unity, 50 business, academic, and legislative leaders came to Washington, D.C., last week to proclaim what they believe is obvious: The United States should be paying more attention to science and engineering. But although there was a rousing consensus on the need to improve teaching, graduate more science majors, and boost spending on research and translating the results to the workplace, there was mostly silence on how these changes might come about and who would pay for them.

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The group’s series of recommendations, announced before the meeting began, include more federal spending on basic research and set-asides for high-risk research, a doubling over the next 10 years of the number of undergraduates earning science and engineering degrees, changes in immigration laws to make it easier for foreign-born graduates to remain in the United States, and greater support for advanced manufacturing technologies.

Problem is, as they note, that no reasonable solutions are put forth regarding how to actually *do* these things.

Some numbers surprised me. They mention that of incoming freshman, about a third say they have an interest in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields–but only a measly 5% graduate with a degree in one of these areas. Thomas Cech of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy chase notes, “A lot of students come to top research universities with good science backgrounds, and it takes us only 1 year to drive this interest out of them.” I agree that poor intro classes can do this. Myself, I started off as a chemistry major in college. Loved chem in high school–largely because my teacher made it fascinating. Then I ended up in intro chemistry with 150 other pre-meds, and man, did that ever drain the interest out of me. Conversely, my high school biology courses were horrible, but since I was also considering med school at the time, I had to take biology as a requirement for medical school–and ended up with a great class, a new major and (eventually) a different career path than I’d originally intended.

Still, as a biology major, I had to take a year of organic chemistry and a semester of biochem, both of which I enjoyed much more than intro chemistry. It was well known that intro chem was a weed-out class: it was as if the professors tried to make it as horrible and uninteresting as possible. And, for me at least, they succeeded. Perhaps they figured that potential chemistry majors had already taken AP chemistry in high school, and were therefore already taking organic chemistry as freshmen. And sure, several of my classmates were doing just that–but not all of us attended schools where AP courses were offered.

I know I’ve seen comments on here (and similarly, on other science blogs or science discussion boards) that teachers “never made science this interesting when I was in school.” So, I’m wondering if that’s really what to aim for here? Would that make enough of an impact, and at what level–junior high? College? Earlier? The article does suggest financial incentives to teachers–to bring better science teachers to the field (and retain the good ones we have). They also emphasize more research opportunities for undergraduates, which I certainly favor. (Even though I teach in a graduate school, we open the labs in our center to undergraduate interns, and I’m working on developing an undergrad-level course in public health to draw more undergrads into this field). Especially for you science-interested but didn’t-pursue-a-science-degree folks out there, what do you think would have made a difference for you as a young adult considering a major and future career?