Why Math and Science Education Means More Jobs

America must become more competitive in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

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There are a variety of programs we must push. For example, there is real potential in the idea of a "Master Teacher Corps" that recognizes and rewards strong instructors in the STEM fields. There is also a proposal from White House advisers to create more STEM-focused schools. Notable is a nonprofit program called Math for America, founded by James Simons, an award-winning mathematician who went on to create an enormously successful investment firm. The program has provided funding for bonuses and stipends for high school STEM teachers. The MacArthur Foundation has given out prizes to developers of video games that encourage learning science and math. Cable TV's Science Channel airs several hours of science programming so that students have a ready means to learn more about it in their after-school hours.

As President Obama has noted, nations like China and India have realized that by making some changes, they could compete in the new world. That's why "they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science," and are investing in research and new technologies. It is no surprise that those countries have emerged. We are up against the old cliché of another Sputnik moment, when the Soviets beat us into space by launching the Sputnik satellite. At that point, we didn't know how we could beat them to the moon, but we made a vow to invest in research and education. The result? We didn't merely excel past the Soviets, we generated a wave of discoveries that created new industries and millions of jobs. We are once again at another Sputnik moment. What can we do? Here's where we should start:

•Invest more in community colleges. They can dramatically increase the pool of skilled workers available to manufacturers. Enrollments are up, as displaced workers pursue new training and high school graduates seek further education before entering the labor market. Some 12 million students are enrolled in community colleges and many of them are learning practical, job-related skills. In a recent survey, nearly a third of this country's manufacturing companies reported having trouble finding enough skilled workers, so it is no wonder that we continue to lose ground to foreign competitors in the key high-tech growth areas of the future. We simply cannot continue to allow our education in the STEM fields to lag behind what's happening in Asia and Europe.

•Welcome talent. We have a lot of unexplored talent, and there is a massive reservoir of talent we can enlist from abroad. Remember that in the past the United States recruited Europe's top experts for our nuclear programs, bringing in scientists such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller. We need to consider how we can generate such an effect all over again, with an immigration policy to attract the brains, talent, and special skills that will enhance American innovation and competitiveness.

[Check out political cartoons about immigration.]

The extraordinary fact is that over 25 percent of America's international patents were based on the work of immigrants. In a recent span, 33 percent of the Ph.D.'s and 57 percent of all of the post-doctorates in science and engineering at U.S. universities were awarded to foreign-born students. Sixty percent of these foreign students stay in the United States for at least 10 years; the highest stay rate, surprisingly enough, was among Chinese students. After all, we boast 13 of the top 20 universities in the world, and we also dominate R&D spending, accounting for 33 percent of global spending. That's about the same as Asia, so this gives us the ability to attract some of the world's greatest talent and to keep them.

•Grant more visas. It is very shortsighted to still keep a tight grip on the number of H-1B visas, which are given to specially talented foreigners. Many have advocated an easement, but the forces of nativism have so far been more powerful. Increasing the number of visas would signal to the world employment markets that the United States is putting performance over other considerations in the race for economic productivity.