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."
At the Hawthorne Math and Science Academy, a charter high school in the Los Angeles area and also a gold medal school on the America's Best High Schools list, principal Joaquin Hernandez understands the frustration. "Half the battle is getting these kids to believe that they're smart and that they can go to college," he says. The school, which requires students to complete math and science courses all four years, is achieving promising results despite its mostly low-income, immigrant student body. Most students arrive as freshmen with poor algebra skills. But 62 percent of students in teacher Pilar Bayani's AP calculus class passed last year's exams. Bayani and two other math teachers, all of whom have taught math abroad, have their own opinions about why American students trail their peers in other countries. They range from students not understanding the importance of math to a lack of motivation. "They give up too fast," says algebra and geometry teacher Maria Gonzales Tavora. "So we have to give students here more one-on-one attention."
Most Hawthorne teachers, for example, hold after-school tutorials, staying well into the evening to help advanced as well as struggling students. The teachers also have little patience for excuses. Any student who misses a class or fails to turn in an assignment serves lunch detention, where he or she studies for college entrance exams. On a recent visit to the school's "detention hall," about 70 students—nearly one sixth of the school—were seated with dictionaries spread open on their laps looking up SAT vocabulary words.
Students also must answer to Hernandez, who's well liked but known for being tough. "You can't be afraid at this school," the principal says, referring to the demanding academic program and strict rules for students. Senior Teresita Casarrubias, who studies past midnight most nights for her five AP classes, knows no fear. "We know we're here to work," she says. Students like Casarrubias also know that colleges that once seemed out of reach are now within grasp. Two graduates last year gained admission to Harvard and Brown.
Lennox Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy, a charter high school (No. 21 on the gold medal list) serving mostly disadvantaged students in a neighborhood near the Los Angeles airport, is achieving similar results. The 510-student school also requires math and science all four years and boasts a high collegebound rate. For Armando Mena, the school's founding principal, the work of preparing all students for college is personal. Mena is a product of the area's secondary public and private schools, which he says failed to adequately prepare him for his college major in biology. He ultimately gave up pursuing a career in medicine for teaching.
At Lennox, Mena relies on teachers like Aaron Fong, who has a background in science and teaches music, and Jose Rivas, a former engineer at Boeing, to bring students up to speed and spark in them an interest in math and science. (By some estimates, 93 percent of American science teachers have little or no training in science, and more than a third of middle and high school math classes have teachers without even a college minor in a math-related field.)
Fong teaches students how to use sophisticated computer software and recording equipment to create music, which they then learn to package commercially. The class requires students to draw on their conceptual knowledge of math and physics. "It really helps to make it interesting and real for students," Fong says. Rivas, who teaches AP physics, also knows that hands-on work makes physics come alive for many of his students who often didn't receive adequate exposure to science in elementary and middle school. So he takes students to conferences on space technology, where they meet scientists and engineers. His class also goes on an annual field trip to a theme park, where students learn how roller coasters are built. "Instead of them just hearing me talk about it, we go out there—and that really gets them excited," he says.
So far, the Lennox teachers' work is paying off. Three quarters of students are accepted to four-year colleges, including students who were not interested in math and science as freshmen but who say once they leave that they will consider college majors in those fields. "Before I came to this school, college never crossed my mind," says senior Francisco Hernandez. Now? "I'm thinking about going to medical school to become a trauma surgeon."
Back at CAMS, the enthusiasm for math and science is more immediate. That helps explain the pride and popularity of the "Nerd Herd," the highly successful robotics team at CAMS. "You'd be crazy to take this class if you weren't passionate about engineering," says Carpenter, the teacher that has challenged his students to a robot building competition. Carpenter is an engineer at Northrop Grumman who has taught at CAMS on a part-time basis for 15 years. Like other math and science teachers there, Carpenter requires students to work in teams and find creative solutions to real-life problems. Marcus Fairchild, a senior who wears an MIT T-shirt, says he likes the school's approach to teaching, which he describes as "Here's an impossible project. Discuss as a group. Now solve the problem."
Judging from the enthusiastic response to the robot challenge, it's easy to see why CAMS students are so successful. All 143 graduates last year were accepted to four-year colleges, and the majority of them said they planned to pursue math, science, or engineering degrees.
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.