(For Part One, click here.{{/a}}

Vivek Wadhwa’s rebuttal to Craig Barrett’s arguments (See Part One):

Again, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to improve K-12 education and I agree about the importance of STEM education. The question is, how do you motivate American children to enter fields like science and engineering that are harder than others to learn, don’t provide the economic rewards, and that aren’t considered “cool”? We can’t force our children to do PhDs in math.

As the article from Scientific American showed, many engineering and science PhDs can’t even get jobs – in academia or industry. This is after they have worked for years at ridiculously low wages as researchers or postdocs. Those that do get jobs don’t ever make up for the financial sacrifice they have made. When American children choose to study science or engineering, their friends call them geeks or nerds – they are made to feel inferior. Their Indian and Chinese counterparts are held in high regard by society and end up at the top of the social ladder. Indian and Chinese engineers and scientists are often national heroes. Here, our kids idolize football players and rock stars.

We can’t also just tell our children that the nation’s competitiveness and standard of living depends on them making sacrifice and completing advanced degrees in math and science. They won’t care. We should improve the K-12 education system as you suggest. Our corporations should also invest in workforce development – which they generally don’t. We should also provide tax breaks for research as you say. And we should fix our university research system (I have written about the big problems with this).

The issue I am highlighting is that even if we did all of the good things you suggest, this would not fix the problem of American children not being motivated to become scientists and engineers. My top students at the Masters of Engineering Management Program at Duke University still vie for high-paying investment banking jobs; they don’t become engineers. It is the same with our top PhDs in math; they become quants at investment banks. Their talent ends up being used by investment banks to find new ways of bilking the financial system.

We need to create the excitement about science and engineering at the national level and motivate our best and brightest to become engineers and scientists. And we need to make it worthwhile financially for them to help our country stay competitive and to solve the problems facing our planet. This is as much a marketing problem as it is an investment problem. An example of a way to fix the marketing problem is what National Academy of Engineering President, Charles Vest, proposed with the Grand Challenges for Engineering program. But this is a tiny first step. We need to do a lot more.

Craig Barrett’s rebuttal to Wadhwa:

Let me respectfully disagree with one point Vivek makes and then give some suggestions on how to overcome his second issue.

First, this is not a financial compensation issue. If it were then every kid who goes to college would choose to major in engineering because a BS in engineering (almost any subject) commands the highest salary of any university graduate. Most kids don’t major in engineering because they don’t have the interest, the aptitude, or they like some other major more. Our young college graduates do not chase the dollar; they tend to follow their interests. In addition, when I look at the unemployment statistics, engineers are usually amongst the highest employment professions in the country. Certainly the percentage of NFL or rock star wannabes or business administration majors or medieval history majors on unemployment is much higher than that for engineers. So can we please move away from the simplistic argument that STEM doesn’t pay?

In addition if you look at graduate school and the graduate Ph.D who spends years working as a Post Doc angling for a teaching position at a prestigious university you simply cannot do an ROI analysis on his or her investment to land the faculty position and conclude that no one will be a Post Doc. The individual is chasing that faculty position because that is what they really want to do. Just like an aspiring actor spends years doing bit parts to finally land the big role. You know that because the end point, the faculty position, is not the highest paid option for the Ph.D. He or she can make more money in the private sector and probably have greater resources (capital facilities and research dollars) to pursue interesting problems. The Post Doc pursues their interest precisely because that is what they are interested in. As there are many more Post Docs than faculty positions available we have to conclude that Post Docs are Post Docs because they want to try to become faculty members and that Post Docs do not represent an inherent limitation or barrier to people trying to obtain a Ph.D in STEM. The private sector has a strong appetite for STEM Ph.Ds—just look at the hiring practices of the major corporations.

The real barrier to pursuing degrees in STEM is that we have almost a perfect filter in place in K-12. For a student to want to major in STEM in college they have to exit high school with a strong mathematics background. That means that they need to have a good math teacher in nearly every grade (in addition to having a good physics, chemistry, and biology teacher). We know that about 1/3 of all math and science teachers in K-12 are not certified in their subjects and probably do not do a good job educating and motivating their students. If you assume for a moment that you need 12 good math teachers in a row to exit high school being proficient in math then the calculation of the probability of such an event happening is simple: 0.67 raised to the 12th power shows you what a perfect filter the K-12 system is.

So how about a national effort to get more STEM content majors into K-12 teaching? A few exciting programs have started in this space (UTeach out of Texas, Teach for America, the revamp of the education school at ASU). All we need to do is start recognizing that hiring content experts in K-12 is more important than hiring someone who has studied education pedagogy for 4 years. Just imagine how many folks interested in STEM want to take all those School of Education classes to get their teaching certificate.

On to the point where I want to support Vivek, i.e., the need to get more kids interested in STEM during K-12. This can happen in the class room with good teachers (can you imagine a PE teacher doubling as a math teacher inspiring kids to want to pursue math?) and it can happen outside of the class room. For example I just spent yesterday afternoon in Phoenix at the FIRST Robotics Championship competition—the energy, the enthusiasm, the application of STEM was fantastic. But only about 15,000 kids nationwide participate in this competition. Just suppose we had a FIRST team at every school in the country. Next week I am at the Intel Science Talent Search (the Nobel equivalent for high school students doing research). The 40 finalists will be doing research better than my Ph.D thesis topic. But only about 1500 kids a year enter this competition—what if we had 15,000? Or 150,000?

This is where we need to mobilize the public and private sectors to improve. This is where we can catch the imagination of the next generation and turn them into candidates for those STEM Ph.Ds. There is sub critical mass working in this area – it just needs to be expanded. Suppose we organized the top 200 STEM oriented companies in the US and let them work at the local level to make FIRST robotics, science fairs, and computer club houses really happen across the US. Then we could overcome the tired arguments that our society doesn’t value STEM. There is a movement to make this happen right now. The best thing we could all do is throw our weight behind this effort.