During the 20th century, American schools and universities produced record numbers of scientists and engineers who led the world in pushing the frontiers of space exploration, computer technology, medicine, communications, etc. As a result, the United States became the undisputed leader in technology, the primary reason for its additional standing as the world’s strongest economy and most powerful military – key elements to being a global superpower.
For the past quarter century, however, that has begun to fade, beginning in grade schools, where students no longer were being pushed by parents and encouraged by teachers to take the first base courses needed to succeed in later, far more difficult science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes. With fewer eighth graders taking algebra and high school juniors and seniors physics and advanced mathematics, there were fewer college undergraduates majoring in STEM-related fields, and fewer graduate degrees awarded to U.S. citizens, even from American colleges and universities.
The end result is a growing shortage in scientists and engineers to replace those earlier generations now reaching retirement age at an increasingly rapid rate. And without a solid base of qualified personnel, corporations, government agencies, and labs are finding it more and more difficult to pursue the next levels of breakthroughs, especially in classified programs, where U.S. citizenship is a requirement.
“While the U.S. maintains its technology lead in a number of areas, there’s little doubt we have lost ground in recent years – and are continuing to lose ground, especially to the Chinese and Indians, who have taken education very seriously,” warned Kent Schneider, president and CEO of AFCEA International (Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association). “We run the risk of losing our technology edge, especially in defense and security, but across a broad base.
“We have a number of technology positions in the U.S. that are open and unfilled and for which we have no qualified candidates. And the number of those is growing every year. Meanwhile, our educational institutions are educating [a growing percentage of] non-U.S. citizens. In the past, due to economic advantages, many of those remained in the U.S. after graduation and contributed to our technology base. But with world economies and opportunities changing, they are getting their educations here and then going back home to apply their knowledge there.”
Schneider, a retired Army Signal Corps colonel who later served as president of Northrop Grumman Defense Group and Northrop Grumman Information Technology Global, said he witnessed the impact of those developments as he found it increasingly difficult to find the qualified technology employees needed by Northrop Grumman.
“We need to turn that around,” he said, adding the key is to reach as far down the education chain as possible. “Research shows people begin to make direction-changing decisions about the general course of their lives starting about the fifth grade.
“Unfortunately, AFCEA can’t reach out to enough individual students to make a serious difference, so we have broadened the approach to also sponsor and encourage the education of teachers in this arena and, through them, reach a broader set of people. So we are focusing grants and scholarships with direct application to STEM at the middle school, high school, and college level, but also reaching out to those who may become teachers.”
During the past decade, AFCEA has provided about $1.6 to $1.8 million a year in scholarships and grants to students majoring in STEM-related disciplines – enough to reach perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 students a year, when accounting for multiple-year awards to the same students. Beginning in 2010, the organization has added another $200,000 to cover 37 scholarships to undergraduate (sophomore and above) and graduate students who pledge to become STEM teachers, with an emphasis on elementary and secondary schools.
From the time the program details were posted in April until the deadline for applications in early June, nearly 200 students applied for the first of those scholarships, including five set aside for Hawaii in the first of AFCEA’s planned annual geographical area focuses.
The fund also will cover $1,000 annual grants, for three years each, to those scholarship recipients who continue teaching. That money is specified to enhance their classrooms, and student interest and enthusiasm, through new equipment, field trips or other resources the school system will not or cannot fund. A similar grant program, in place for several years and unrelated to scholarships, will continue as well.
“The best way to get more students interested in a particular field of study is to increase the number of inspired and inspiring teachers working in the field. The ideal way to achieve this end is by focusing on the young people who are now studying in our country’s universities and colleges in preparation for careers as STEM teachers,” Fred Rainbow, executive director of the AFCEA Educational Foundation, explained.
“There are approximately 171,000 STEM teachers in U.S. middle and secondary schools. On average, each teacher reaches 150 students per year. If an additional 35 teachers each could inspire 150 more students each year with a passion for the sciences, this would translate into 5,250 more students taught by motivated teachers who hopefully will encourage these students to pursue STEM studies and careers. And if we can keep them teaching STEM subjects, then that multiple goes up exponentially as long as we can motivate them to stay in education.”
Three dozen or so scholarship winners each year may seem an infinitesimal addition to the existing base of STEM teachers, but AFCEA sees it as a question of properly trained and motivated teachers in areas in which many currently are not specifically trained in those disciplines and most feel underappreciated.
“It’s all part of the big idea of raising the status of our teachers to give them a greater reason to stay in education. And that would get stronger and stronger as they stayed in their field of study and motivate more students in the future,” Rainbow said. “That’s a long-term hope.
“Many math and science teachers don’t make a career out of teaching [elementary and secondary students] because they can get jobs that pay more in industry or even in universities. We hope this program will get bigger funding so when these students graduate they are recognized as special teachers, raising the status of STEM teachers, which I think also would contribute to the solution in raising student interest in science and math.”
One of the drivers behind the new teacher scholarships program is retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Bruce Bohn, now chairman of the Partnerships & Initiatives Subcommittee of the AFCEA Education Committee. In 30 years as an Air Force communications officer, then 14 as a Raytheon executive in secure voice communications and business development with the Air Force and the Defense Information Services Agency, he also witnessed the nation’s downward trend in STEM education.
“There are a lot of people focusing energy and assets on students, but kids don’t normally get excited about subjects if their teachers are not excited,” he said. “We found teachers were having a very difficult time – in some cases, not even staying in what was a low-paying field with little motivation. We felt if we put some energy and effort into growing the teacher base, that in turn would help feed and foster the student base.”
The current situation is far different from his own experience as an electrical engineering major at The Citadel in the early 1960s. While the curriculum was extremely difficult – only 15 of the 120 students who began that course of study with him were still there four years later – the hard sciences still attracted a lot of students then because of high demand and exciting prospects, Bohn recalls.
“We had good, well-motivated instructors in an up-and-coming discipline. The marketplace was crying for engineers; we couldn’t get enough. So you were virtually guaranteed a job if you came out of school with a technical degree,” he said. “But over the next 10 to 20 years, it seemed the demand for technical people went into decline. The social environment in which people were growing up was more a ‘feel good’ idea; working hard and taking hard courses did not appeal, so a lot of students took softer classes. But there was a demand for those skills as well, so they did pretty well.
“When the dot-com phase came along in the mid- to late ’90s, all of a sudden the marketplace changed. All the smart people were out of work, jobs in the tech fields were declining – not just in the hard sciences, but in the softer ones, as well. So the STEM environment was heavily impacted by the marketplace and which career fields were the best in which to make money. And as the tight market combined with the hard courses, fewer and fewer students were interested in going there.”
As that environment evolved in the United States, however, many other parts of the world were looking more and more like America in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Other nations were going the opposite direction, building their industry,” Bohn added. “Parents rode their kids hard to be successful and we soon found ourselves behind the curve in the production of new scientists and engineers. And that’s when it finally became apparent this was a serious problem that was undermining the security of the country.
“If their parents are not pushing them toward something, kids will take the courses that are the most fun. So if we want them to take science and engineering, we have to show them how those will be fun and they can make a big difference. Then they will be willing to put in the time and energy. Both parents and teachers have a big role to play in that, showing today’s kids how all this relates, how designing games, building robots, advancing medicine, finding green energy solutions, and so forth require these technical skills – and a revived interest in engineering and science education is required to do that.”
The U.S. manned space program that drew those earlier generations of students to STEM majors is rapidly fading – even as their own manned programs now provide a major attraction to students in China and India. But Bohn believes there are still significant areas that can attract new generations of American children back to the difficult track, areas offering long-term opportunities that have “a crying need for technologically smart people.
“One is in the environmental or green areas. We need better solutions to meeting our energy requirements, to preserve the ecosystem. Resolving our fuels crisis and coming up with new and better battery technologies, everything that will lead to getting the nation off its dependence on oil, is a huge area where you can extrapolate opportunities to make major changes,” he said.
“Another is the whole medical field, where I see a tremendous need for scientists doing research into health issues. A third and very popular area now is the cyber domain. We used to just refer to it as IT, but now it is cyber awareness and cyber threats – which essentially is a software-based phenomenon, as today’s world turns on software. Those are three areas where you can tell youngsters they can do something unique and be right in the thick of changing directions for their country.
“Are those as big a motivator as the space program? I don’t know. I would argue we just are not doing a good job of explaining the potential, the opportunities that exist in these areas and how STEM skills and disciplines can be applied. And that is another reason for good teachers, who can explain all that, open those doors, show how one thing relates to another. So a good, motivated, industrious teacher who is interested in a student achieving, rather than just completing a subject, can be vital to all this.”
At the same time, Schneider believes the federal government’s actions in recent years, combined with a growing emphasis on consumerism, have added to the problem of declining opportunities and expectations.
“The defense industrial base is shrinking, partly because of less R&D funding from government, which has shifted more of the research effort to industry; there is roughly a 23 percent decline in defense R&D spending in the next five years, for example,” he said. “In addition, the government is adopting or adapting technologies from the commercial marketplace at a much higher rate than in the past, developing for themselves only when necessary. That will have the inevitable effect of shrinking the defense industrial base, especially in the IT space.
“However, if you look at industry in general, there is still a tremendous amount of leadership in the U.S. in IT and other commercial industrial areas, so I don’t see any real evidence that the industrial base as a whole is shrinking. A good deal of manufacturing has been off-shored, but much of the design work is still done in the U.S., the hardcore engineering that underpins all that.”
“If we don’t maintain the skill base and continue to develop successful specialties here – and so don’t have enough qualified people – companies will have no alternative but to go offshore,” Schneider warned. “There already is concern in government about securing the supply chain, that too much hardware and software is being developed in places where it is very difficult for us to ensure quality and security.
“So AFCEA and others are supporting efforts to re-establish the security of the supply chain, which may lead the government to say there are some things that have to be developed in the U.S. Arguments may be made that that would increase the cost of those systems and software – and it may appear so because of the lower cost of labor overseas – but the amount of money now going into ensuring the quality and security of software and hardware sometimes negates the savings in development.”
Schneider also sees a cultural trend that has replaced innovation and quality with a demand for low cost, quick turnaround, and short-term convenience, not only in the consumer market, but in government, as well.
“The economics of the problem are off kilter. People have moved away from the technical specialties toward a degree in business or finance, because that is where the money is,” he said. “And we don’t do an adequate job of rewarding innovation, of what is going on in the marketplace. We would rather pay the people who bring in the money.
“Both industry and government are to blame – and we have to find a way to change that metric. Government has dumbed down its acquisition process so there is no longer a premium on innovation and engineering. As a result, companies are not rewarding the people who provide that innovation because they no longer need it to win business. We’ve driven costs down and are now getting exactly what we asked for – the results of the low bid.”
The ongoing decline in the human component of America’s technology base, therefore, is a multi-factor problem, the result of changing government standards, lowered expectations for industry, a decline not only in the number of high-tech jobs, but also in the prestige and income a future scientist or engineer can expect.
“Part of what motivates people coming out of school is doing something challenging and rewarding, but they also want to be adequately compensated. So we have to go back and look at how we incentivize people,” Schneider continued.
“If you are a college student looking at how to make money over the long term, the answer is to become a stock broker or get an MBA and work your way up through the management ranks. You probably won’t look to technical fields because only one in a hundred in those fields ever makes significant amounts of money. I think the opportunities for challenge are still there, but we must figure out financial incentives, as well.”
In many ways, it is a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Without jobs, challenges, and good incomes in technology fields, there is reduced incentive for students to pursue the most difficult courses, from middle school through graduate school. But without an adequate number of STEM-educated college graduates, government and industry cannot maintain the technical infrastructure to create those jobs. And without both returning to a demand for innovation and excellence and providing new and challenging opportunities, the infrastructure and a new generation of scientists and engineers fails to materialize and the nation slips further away from its former technology leadership position.
While AFCEA joins the campaign to reverse the cultural trends, it also is looking to organizations – such as the Gates Foundation – with the money and prestige to not only fund more scholarships for future scientists, engineers, and teachers, but to help bolster how those students and teachers are seen by others and by themselves.
“We will continue to increase the total funding to sustain these programs over time. Instead of doing it on our own, we also are working through national associations that deal with these categories of students so we get the best qualified candidates and people who are really committed to complete their education in teaching in the math and science areas,” Schneider said.
“As a separate initiative, we are approaching some of the larger foundations that have strong educational objectives in hopes they will be willing to go into partnership. I would love to be able to multiply what we are doing that way, but that is separate from our own fundraising. It takes awhile to establish these kinds of relationships, so we continue to raise money on our own while we pursue those foundations.”
In the end, Rainbow concluded, is a hope that the idea of supporting and promoting STEM education and educators will “catch fire.”
“I’m confident the 35 kids we identify this year will benefit and the program will expand in the future,” he said. “I just hope others will do the same and we will get the fire lit so more children will want to get into the hard sciences and the country will benefit from it.”
This article was first published in The Year in Defense: Aerospace Edition, Summer 2010.