Joseph Carpenter, a senior engineer for a global defense and technology company, has given three teams of engineers a challenge: Each team must design and build a robot that can successfully complete a search-and-rescue mission after a terrorist attack. The teams don't have much time. Carpenter expects a "proof of concept"—or evidence that each team can build a robot—in two months. On a whiteboard he has written some words of encouragement: "Why do something ordinary when you can do something extraordinary?"
The engineers who will attempt to pull off Carpenter's challenge are not actual engineers. They are high school seniors who attend the California Academy of Mathematics and Science, a highly successful public magnet school outside Los Angeles that ranks 26th on U.S. News's America's Best High Schools list.
CAMS and several other high schools that cracked this year's top 100 are making a strong push to prepare more students for careers in the so-called STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. They are responding to what many educators, business leaders, and politicians see as a crisis in America: Once a leader in math and science education, the United States now is far behind other countries. Out of 30 industrialized nations, America ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. The United States also trails at least 19 countries that produce more scientists and engineers.
"We do produce students who function at the highest levels in math and science internationally," says Vivien Stewart, vice president for education at Asia Society in New York. "The problem is we don't produce enough of them." Stewart, who has led U.S. education officials on visits to the best high schools in China, says she and her American colleagues are impressed by the rigor of math and science courses and the higher levels of student motivation at Chinese schools. "The students in those high schools can present their science experiments in English as well as in Chinese," she says. "So they are consciously producing students who can function not just in a local or even a national context but in a global context, and you don't see that very much in American schools."
Experts warn that America's lackluster performance in math and science can compound the troubles of the nation's already ailing economy. "In a global economy, the best jobs are not going to go to the best in your class but to the best in the world," says Gary Phillips, a chief scientist for the American Institutes for Research in Washington. "Some of the Asian countries are just outstanding in math and science achievement, and we're way behind." Phillips's research shows that even American eighth graders in the best-performing states like Massachusetts rank significantly below eighth graders in the highest-achieving countries, which include Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Tom Loveless, an education policy director at the Brookings Institution, says the news is not all bad. U.S. student achievement on national math tests, he says, has been inching up steadily, including on college-level Advanced Placement tests. International comparisons are useful, he adds, but some can exaggerate the competition. Experts nevertheless agree that progress in the United States is not happening fast enough, especially at the high school level. Economists estimate that the country's economy would grow by 4.5 percentage points over 20 years if Americans caught up to the leaders in math and science.
CAMS, which serves a diverse student body that includes many immigrant and low-income students, is known for its demanding academic program. In addition to taking math and science all four years, students must complete two years of engineering and pass AP calculus. The school is housed on the California State University-Dominguez Hills campus, an arrangement that allows juniors and seniors to explore a range of college classes, including accelerated coursework in math and science. About a quarter of seniors take university physics. "We're kind of smarter than some college students," says CAMS senior Larry Pang, who takes university physics and a macroeconomics course.
Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, says her company depends on schools like CAMS to train the next generation of high-skilled workers. Like other corporations, Intel has been vocal about the need to improve math and science education in the United States. The large computer-chip manufacturer is behind the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation's oldest and most prestigious high school science competition. Standing in the way of progress, however, are U.S. attitudes toward math and science. Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, a selective engineering college in Claremont, Calif., says few female students seriously consider engineering because they think it's a career for "dorky white males, and no cool girl in her right mind would want to be one of those." "One of the biggest problems throughout our culture is we think it's OK to be bad at math," she says. "It's an image we need to change."
Corrected on 12/5/08: An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect ranking for Lennox Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy. The school is ranked No. 21 in the 2009 version of America's Best High Schools.