It's About the Money, Stupid

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math class 2.jpgContrary to what we're so often told, American students are not bad at math and science.The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development published a study not long ago that concluded that, contrary to fears expressed by educators and potential employers, American students have not wavered in their interest in science and math over the past 30 years. But, the study also found that many of the highest performing students were choosing non-science and math careers, the reason being, of course, a lack of opportunity and growth in those fields.

Basic economics tells us that human beings tend to follow the money. In the late 1990s, the dot com boom sent many very smart and hard working youngsters in the direction of computer science--at MIT, the famous "Course 6" (electrical engineering and computer science) was the hottest offering on campus. And MIT was not alone--enrollments soared in programs across the country. But with the post dot com bomb climate for computer geeks not nearly as sunny,  these ultra-smart and eager hordes are looking elsewhere.  

Whining and hand wringing over the state of science and math education in this country will have little impact if the jobs for scientists, engineers and mathematicians remain so uncertain, and so readily outsourced or filled by visa holders from abroad. Young Americans are not nearly so lazy or stupid as many pundits make them out to be--the best and the brightest will turn to math and science only if and when it pays to do so. 

Photo Credit: Flickr User woodleywonderworks

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She is the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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