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America's Eroding Knowledge Edge

By Mike Ruettgers The U.S. is engaged in a fierce contest with other large countries to secure the lion's share of the world's knowledge work. Will America come out on top? The answer is no longer an automatic yes.

Much is riding on the shoulders of the fresh crop of more than 1 million undergraduate and graduate students who will soon pick up their degrees and join the U.S. knowledge force. More than ever, we need these men and women to strengthen our country's ability to acquire, advance, and harness knowledge.

Businesses and economies run on knowledge and the workers who transform highly technical ideas, designs, concepts, and engineering know-how into innovations that respond to customer needs and open up new markets. The race to create and deploy new knowledge carries high stakes. Countries that consistently field the strongest knowledge teams will win out.

SYSTEMATIC APPROACH. Just how committed are other countries to building their brainpower and knowledge industries? Very committed. Some are out-investing us in biotechnology, broadband communications, and nanotechnology as they assemble a larger computer science and engineering workforce.

Others -- notably China and India -- are taking a systematic approach to training their young people in math, science, and computer technology while steering more of their citizens into science and engineering careers -- as well as enticing highly trained foreigners to their countries. The upshot of this? "In 30 years we will have gone from 'sold in China' to 'made in China' to 'designed in China' to 'dreamed up in China,'" Thomas Friedman writes in The World Is Flat.

India has acquired a similarly strong national commitment to creating a workforce that can capture more and more of the world's knowledge work. Last year, the country's Ministry of Information Technology & Communications produced a report entitled "Strengthening the Human Resource Foundation of the Indian IT-Enabled Services/IT Industry." It calls for educating at least 2 million more technically skilled knowledge workers by 2008.

TAKING KNOW-HOW HOME. By contrast, the math skills of U.S. 15-year-olds rank 24th out of the 29 industrialized nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, according to a recent international test. Our 15 year-olds' science skills fell below the 29-nation average as well. Since 1990, the number of U.S. bachelor's degrees in engineering has declined by 8%, and mathematics degrees have dropped by about 20%, according to the National Science Foundation's Science & Engineering Indicators report last year.

An increasing number of foreign-born students are earning U.S. science and engineering degrees, especially advanced ones, and we can expect more of these degree holders to take their education back home in the years ahead. And America's share of industrial patents and published scientific papers has declined, as has the percentage of Nobel prizes that go to U.S. scientists.

So how can we improve America's prospects for the long haul?

ROLE MODELS ARE KEY. First, we need a national commitment to promoting math and science education. Most of us have heard of the nation's largest children's literacy organization, Reading Is Fundamental (RIF). But where is its math and science counterpart? Seventeen years ago, Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos wrote that "ours is a society that depends so completely on math and science and yet seems so indifferent to the innumeracy and scientific illiteracy of so many of its citizens."

Sadly, this attitude still seems to prevail. Too many people view math as the province of esoterica -- differential equations, probability, and fractals -- rather than as essential training in the analytical skills that help us deal with complexity and make informed decisions in business.

Second, more corporations and nonprofit foundations should join in making math and science education a priority. They can help stimulate scientific creativity in the young and build a culture that values math and science by funding fairs on these subjects, as well as supporting mentors and professional role models in the classroom. Role models play an especially important part in the lives of the young women and ethnic minorities who will make up a larger share of tomorrow's workforce -- but are underrepresented in high-paying technical professions today.

PARENTS' INFLUENCE. Third, state and local governments should revamp training, recruitment, and retention efforts to raise the effectiveness of math and science teachers. We need the states to work with graduate schools of education and undergraduate education departments to ensure that entry-level teachers have proper training in science and math content and pedagogy.

To cultivate great teachers, it would help a lot if states supported the use of pay differentials to attract more and better-skilled math, science, and technology teachers as part of a broader effort to recruit and train potential educators from the ranks of engineers. It also makes sense to give teachers more opportunities and incentives to pursue intensive professional development in math and science, including stipends and tuition for graduate credit.

And finally, let's not underestimate the essential role of parents in shaping children's early attitudes about math and science. They can encourage their children to play interactive math-related computer and board games. They can celebrate their kids' emerging analytical skills with the same enthusiasm they show for their developing reading ability. They can show their children that functioning optimally in the world means being both numerate and literate. And they can also talk to their kids about the wide career options open to people who major in math and science.

START THEM YOUNG. At EMC (EMC), where I work, we like to say that technology leadership is not an entitlement -- what gets you to the top of the mountain won't keep you there. You have to continuously renew your strength and climb up to a higher summit. The same holds true for our country's knowledge leadership.

To sustain the top spot in today's global, knowledge-intensive competition, the U.S. must produce wave after wave of new graduates who can help the country create and replenish knowledge, especially technical knowledge. And that means paying much more attention to the early stages of these graduates' learning journey and ensuring that their educational bedrock includes math and science.

If we fail to do this, we will diminish America's ability to attract and hold business investment and world-class companies. We will lose our commanding share of the world's knowledge work and the interesting, high-value, high-paying jobs that come with it. Above all, we will jeopardize our country's future economic growth. Ruettgers is chairman of EMC's board of directors

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