Push is on to stem disinterest in math, sciences

For some time, top political and business leaders in Georgia have argued that efforts to make science, technology, engineering and math more attractive to students haven’t kept pace with the needs of the growing tech industry.

Now, a national study released this week by U.S. News and World Report backs that assertion.

Despite multiple initiatives to promote science, mathematics and related disciplines in the United States, high school students in this country are no more interested in those fields than they were more than a decade ago, the study found.

Moreover, the nation is still not producing enough workers to fill such jobs in industries that are expected to grow exponentially in the future, the study contends.

The report is the first of its kind by U.S. News, whose editor and chief content officer, Brian Kelly, called the findings “both surprising and kind of depressing.”

Conducted with support from Raytheon, a national defense contractor that has invested in programs to boost student interest in technology, the nationwide study tracks science and technology jobs and education since 2000.

The report doesn’t provide state statistics. But it comes one week after a group of business executives told state leaders that Georgia’s pool of tech talent is too shallow and vulnerable to poaching.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed lamented earlier this year that just under half of Georgia Tech students leave the state after graduation.

Expanding science and technology education has become a tenet of Gov. Nathan Deal’s economic development plan. In essence, Georgia must get more students interested, trained or degreed in those disciplines to attract and retain more businesses to grow the economy.

Deal is set to sign legislation next week that will expand a lottery-funded grant program for the state’s highest-achieving technical college students. And a University System of Georgia science and technology initiative has a goal of increasing the number of graduates in tech fields.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education “plays a critical role in our state’s competitiveness and future economic prosperity,” Deal said last month in announcing a national partnership with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to increase the number of tech teachers in the state.

But in addition to the training that businesses are calling for, there needs to be a return to “conversational science” — in other words, casual discussions in homes, as well as in schools, about how things work and why, said Emory University President James Wagner, an engineer. “We used to talk about these things all the time, but at some point we stopped.”

Georgia Tech associate professor Craig Forest has heard a lot about a shortage of people to fill science and technology jobs, and about student disinterest in those fields. He has also heard dissenting opinions by some scholars who say the STEM gap is a myth. For him, the focus is improving the way science and math are presented to students.

“When you ask kids in the United States what they want to be when they grow up, they say Beyoncé and LeBron James — celebrities,” said Forest. “When you ask kids in other countries, they say engineers.”

Forest is the founder of an annual technology expo at Georgia Tech that gives the university’s seniors a chance to show off their required projects in Tech’s basketball arena. This year’s expo — held Thursday with all the excitement of any sporting event — featured 900 students on more than 170 teams with projects ranging from an automatic wine chiller to an at-home asthma management device to a self-cleaning litter box.

“We’re making it fun. We’re also helping them make a difference and making them celebrities just like pop stars and athletes,” Forest said. “We need to celebrate our scientists.”

Lisa Johnson of Alpharetta knew early on that she wanted to be an engineer, a decision that was cemented after a high school technology summer camp.

“I heard about biomedical engineering right when it was growing as a field with prosthetics, artificial hearts and pacemakers … and I just got excited,” said Johnson, 22, a member of the expo team that designed the asthma device — which has already garnered the attention of local physicians and is being sponsored by an area nonprofit organization. “I called my mom and told her I know what I want to do for the rest of my life and ended up doing it.”

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Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.