STEMming the Brain Drain

Fall 2010


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» STEM Initiatives at the Whiting School

Marc Donohue fears that an engineering brain drain will cripple the United States and ultimately trigger a global cataclysm.

His case begins innocuously enough with the hypothetical tale of a homeowner who has no clue how to prevent the basement pipes from freezing or fix a sump pump. But Donohue, vice dean for research for the Whiting School of Engineering, quickly raises the threat level, depicting a nation incapable of developing renewable energy methods or solving water shortages. From there, Donohue’s narrative hurtles into a world at war over the planet’s scant remaining natural resources.

Donohue places much of the blame for his doomsday scenario on the complexities of the digital universe. “Advanced technology has led us down this path where we have become complacent about all the technology in our lives,” he says. “We can’t understand any of it; that’s a problem.”

To varying degrees, researchers, educators, and policymakers across the country share Donohue’s distress. They, too, are pushing to make education reform in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) a national priority. Contending that the country’s future depends on reversing these trends, they cite stark evidence of declining student performance in the STEM disciplines.

Last year, for example, a special analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2006, 15-year-old students in the United States placed in the bottom third of 30 developed nations in a science literacy assessment. Their average score was 489, compared to top-performing Finland’s average score of 563. Canada and Japan rounded out the trio of countries with the highest scores.

In the same assessment, the average mathematics literacy score for 15-year-old students in the United States was a lackluster 474, placing the country in the bottom quarter of all 30 participating nations, and again well below the top three: Finland, Korea, and Japan.

STEM performance in the United States is stagnant at best. Some more encouraging statistics show an uptick in science and engineering degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but they must also be interpreted with caution, says Allen Soyster, director of the Division of Engineering Education and Centers at the National Science Foundation (NSF) while on leave from his post as dean of Northeastern University’s School of Engineering.

Many engineers, both newly minted and experienced, are gravitating to jobs outside of their academic field, lured by handsome salary offers, Soyster explains. “If you take all the students who graduated in engineering in 2006, what percent are working in areas closely related to their degree? Fifty-seven percent. So 43 percent of graduates who have completed an engineering degree after four years are not working in a closely related area.”

Every mutiny makes it more difficult for the country to reclaim its economic super powers. Another impediment is the accelerating rate of engineers nearing retirement age (26 percent were older than age 50 in 2006, according to NSF figures), which has slowed the steady growth of engineers in the workforce.

“I think it’s important for girls to understand that upper-level math and science courses keep many doors open to them in career options.”

– Mary Zappone, BS ’86, President of Alcoa Oil & Gas

In response to these worrisome trends, Whiting School faculty and others with Johns Hopkins University affiliations are championing fresh approaches to the STEM crisis. From their respective positions as leaders in education, industry, and public policy, each sees the situation through a customized lens.

Some, like Donohue, view sagging STEM achievement as a threat to the nation’s global dominance. “We may be on an irreversible path,” he says. “China is graduating five times as many engineers per year.”