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STEM Stuff

The Root of the STEM Problem || John Merrifield || July 30, 2013

A tour of any major university, including meeting the faculty, will establish the STEM problems. Interviewing department heads or even perusing the faculty directory may be sufficiently insightful. You’ll find that in the “STEM” fields of science, engineering, and math, and a few others, the U.S. is very immigrant dependent. That is also true in my field, economics. U.S. citizen applicants for faculty positions are not the norm, especially natural born citizens. For example, I’m a naturalized citizen. Luckily, the U.S. is very attractive to highly skilled immigrants, though often a big part of the attraction is the awful condition of the immigrants’ home country; for many, perhaps more so than the appealing circumstances of the U.S. Some folks have blamed America for causing a 3rd world brain drain, but fault lies mostly with the origin countries. They have it well within their ability to impact that problem much more than we do. Sadly, it’s something we need to monitor with concern. We should want to celebrate 3rd world improvement without reservation. But until we act to increase the supply of home-grown talent, our STEM problems will get much worse if improvements elsewhere in the world reduce the supply of STEM immigrants to the U.S.

From the American perspective, the problems that arise from the huge imbalance between STEM skill demand and U.S. native supply is that the STEM labor price must be higher to induce migration, plus quality issues like language barriers, and for some STEM jobs, loyalty issues. Nation at Risk declaration #3 (2001), highlighted the latter concern – foreign nationals and recently naturalized citizens working on defense-related projects – and blamed the huge imbalance on the U.S. K-12 school system. That declaration echoed a 1959 book (Education and Freedom) by Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, where he bluntly stated the critical, STEM-debilitating symptom of the U.S. school system: “The system looks upon talented children primarily as a vexing administrative problem.” Yes, talented children undermine the pursuit of politically correct uniformity.

Even with the prevailing, giant shopping mall, traditional public high schools of the present, it is very different to adequately address student diversity, especially the stimulation needs of gifted and talented children, and others with a special knack or hunger for knowledge in a STEM field. What is needed is a dynamic menu of specialized schooling options as diverse, thematically and pedagogically, as the student population of much more than an attendance zone or school district. For example (among many), you cannot assign children, based on residence, to highly specialized schooling options. School choice is a must.

Chartered public schools and magnet schools can help produce that needed increase in the diversity of accessible schooling options, especially with price decontrol of the charter sector. Policies that facilitate increased online instruction and blended learning, which means making it easier for students to enroll in a mixture of face-to-face and online schooling options, are a must, especially for students residing in sparsely populated places. Ultimately, I believe that entrepreneurial initiative enabled by a school choice program that substantially levels the tuition cost of public and private schooling options will be a major factor in the production of much-increased home-grown STEM talent, as well as knowledge and skills of all kinds. Until we muster the political wisdom and will to do that, we have to open the doors to skilled immigrants even wider (while subtracting the spies), fast, before their home countries get their acts together enough to retain them.

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