Back in the 1980s, with the auto and electronics industries under assault from Japan, U.S. executives loudly bemoaned America's relatively poor skills in math, science, and engineering. The lament has never stopped. Despite the calls for action spanning decades, "we still do a very, very poor job of educating our kids" in science and math, says Craig R. Barrett, CEO of Intel Corp. (INTC ) Compare high school graduates in the world's top 25 countries, he says, and "an American kid is, on average, near the bottom 10%."
No quick fix will turn this situation around. But to regain a glimmer of optimism, there's nothing like a close encounter with some of America's brightest students in science and math. With Intel's consent, BusinessWeek solicited the thoughts and aspirations of the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search (STS, which was sponsored by Westinghouse before 1998). Arguably the most prestigious competition for technically inclined U.S. high school seniors, STS guarantees $5,000 college scholarships to the 40 who make it to the final round. The top three prizes are worth $100,000, $75,000, and $50,000. Past STS winners have gone on to notch six Nobel prizes, three Medal of Science awards, and 10 MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."
A sample of 40 exceptional students -- 10 of whom got perfect scores on their SATs -- can't capture the talents or attitudes of all 1,600 students who entered the competition. It's an even blurrier reflection of all the high schoolers around the country who seriously pursue science. But the sample does show what's possible when gifted kids are nurtured by caring parents, challenged by high expectations in school, encouraged to explore what interests them, and given a chance to work with mentors at universities and U.S. national laboratories. And by surveying the finalists, BusinessWeek was able to glimpse how top-performing students would shape government science policies if they were handed the opportunity.
The projects that won recognition for the STS finalists, aged 16 to 18, cover a remarkable swath, from archeological fieldwork to the social sciences. Albert Tsao from Silver Spring, Md., developed a potential fiber-optic transistor for superfast optical computers. Aaron S. Goldin in Encinitas, Calif., created a prototype wave-powered generator. And Kelley Harris from Sacramento studied molecular interactions that could lead to new strategies against smallpox -- her project won third place.
Two students worked with the atom smashers at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory: Shan Yuan "Ben" Huang of Coram, N.Y., and Timothy F. Credo from Highland Park, Ill. Credo's software for a new particle detector at FermiLab earned the No. 2 award. And the grand prize went to David L.V. Bauer of New York City. He developed a sensor, including a nanoscale component, designed to detect exposure to all the main neurotoxins that America's foes might be likely to deploy.
While the students' accomplishments are cause for celebration, there's no question the U.S. is at a crossroads today, facing a challenge more threatening than Japan's industrial onslaught in the 1980s. When that threat emerged, the U.S. marshaled its resources, matched Japan in quality, called up its reserves of ingenuity, and stemmed losses in market share.
THE PRESSURE'S ON
This time around, as competitive pressure mounts from China, India, and other emerging economies, America's greatest vulnerability is internal. It's the institutions the U.S. depends on to educate its children. Unless this vulnerability is addressed, declares a chorus of prominent scientists, educators, and businesspeople, the nation's hopes for sustained prosperity could be dashed. Without a technically skilled workforce, U.S. business "won't be able to compete globally," says John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Some of the data on this topic keep getting gloomier. Last December's report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), for example, ranked the math skills of U.S. 15-year-olds 24th among the 29 OECD countries. Just three years ago, PISA put the U.S. at No. 18.
Such test scores don't tell the whole story, though. Ask students born in Asia what they've gained from a U.S. education, and the answer is unanimous: creative thinking skills. U.S. schools -- good ones, anyway -- expand the ways kids think about problems. And that, they agree, is the secret of U.S. invention and innovation.
Company execs contemplating recruitment can only wish for more students like the STS winners and finalists. In the past, business has counted on an influx of foreign talent to compensate for shortfalls. "But I don't think we can continue to rely on that," says Joseph A. Miller, chief technology officer at Corning Inc. "The competition for talent has increased substantially worldwide," he explains. "To continue to innovate as a nation, we need to ensure that we'll have a domestic source of people well prepared in science, engineering, and math."
Education also tops the list of the Innovation Policy Agenda, presented earlier this month to Washington officials by TechNet, a bipartisan club of 150 top executives in the high-tech sector. TechNet convened a series of summits around the country last year and came to a grim conclusion: The U.S. has been chiseling away at its competitiveness for so long that it could soon crumble. "Just because we led before doesn't mean we'll lead in the future," warns John T. Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO ) and co-founder of TechNet.
Largely, that's because the U.S. isn't planting enough new seeds of invention and innovation. "After education, our No. 2 problem is spending on basic research," declares Intel's Barrett. As a percentage of gross domestic product, federal support of basic research in the physical sciences has actually declined by more than one-third over the past 25 years. Now the Bush Administration wants to cut the National Science Foundation's budget by 10%. Instead, says Barrett, the NSF's budget ought to double over the next five years, just as the National Institutes of Health's budget has doubled over the past five years.
LESS BANG, MORE BUCKS
The STS finalists for the most part agree that Washington should support more research. This was one issue raised in both the opinion survey and roundtable discussions BusinessWeek conducted with the finalists in Washington just before the winners were announced. More federal money for research on alternative energy was the students' chief priority, followed by medicine and health care, the environment, and biotechnology.
Asked how they would pay for the additional research, the two top recommendations were to shift money from the Defense Dept. (after the U.S. pulls out of Iraq and Afghanistan) and raise taxes on the wealthy, on energy companies, and on big polluters. Next came trimming Social Security and welfare benefits.
All 40 students are either "very much" or "somewhat" in favor of developing alternative energy sources -- the only issue on the poll without a single dissenter. "But this doesn't seem to be a very big issue for the politicians right now," notes Bruce X. Brewington of Fairport, N.Y. That's probably due to a lack of public pressure, says Stephen J. DeVience of Chicago. "People seem to complacently believe that engineers will find solutions in time to avert a crisis."
U.S. energy policy is too focused on traditional fossil fuels, assert several students. "These policies paralyze us from taking the lead in alternative energy solutions," says Aaron Goldin. Ailish E. Bateman in Sag Harbor, N.Y., agrees. "Striving to maintain yesterday's status quo," she says, "just tilts world politics more steeply. Even rumors of an oil cutback send stocks tumbling." Ian R. Haken of Plano, Tex., thinks the government should start making changes now, "even if they go against the public will." Personally, he adds, "I'm in favor of electric cars that would be charged with electricity produced by nuclear power."
Nuclear energy was a divisive topic at the roundtables. Several students fear another accident like the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl in Ukraine. They also cite the problem of radioactive waste. Among those on the other side, Robert T. Cordwell from Albuquerque pointed out that burning coal "actually produces more radioactive waste -- and spreads it around more," whereas nuclear fuel can be recycled. None of the skeptics was persuaded, although Amber I. Hess of Carmel, Calif., said more of such statistics would be "really useful" for an informed debate.
On the education front, the STS students have many ideas for improvement. Several feel that Americans' disinclination to plunge into science and technology traces back to early childhood. "The motivation to learn can be inspired only in elementary school," says Michael A. Forbes from Silver Spring. Starting even earlier would be better, says top-prize-winner Bauer. "Studies have shown that patterns for learning are set by the age of four," he notes. "This means we need to provide preschool, not day care, for three- and four-year-olds."
Another recommendation is to introduce youngsters to tougher math earlier in life, as do some countries that perform better on international assessments like PISA. Michael J. Barany from Falcon Heights, Minn., points to math textbooks in Singapore. "Their sixth graders are routinely asked to do stuff that I didn't encounter until the seventh grade, and I'm ahead of the American curve."
But what really troubles these students is the standardized testing used increasingly to measure school performance. Teachers spend way too much time "getting students to do well on these tests," notes Tsao. The result is a dumbing-down that deemphasizes learning and exploration in favor of focused training for taking the tests. It's a huge turn-off for above-average kids, say these students.
Asked to comment on the issue of women in science -- a contentious topic in the wake of remarks by Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers about gender disparities -- some finalists noted that middle school is the pivotal time for females. Studies show that in elementary school, girls are at least as interested in, and as good at, science and math as are boys. But social conditioning, especially by teachers and peers, during the early teenage years changes that, says Po-Ling Loh from Madison, Wis. Girls should be encouraged to ignore chiding about math and science being "too geeky" for a girl, she says. Summers needs to take another look at gender differences, suggests Ling Pan of New York City. More women scientists would enhance competitiveness, she asserts, because there is evidence that "women are better at multitasking and making connections across disciplines, while men are better at focusing on one discipline."
Some of the schools represented at the Intel event have amazing success records in repeatedly sending students to STS and similar competitions. For example, five STS finalists this year hail from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. Noting that fact, students suggested that there are concrete steps leading to successful programs in science, and that these steps could be implemented more broadly in different schools.
After all, most children aren't math wizards, any more than they're musical prodigies. But that doesn't mean mediocre performance is destiny. Schools need to foster more interest in science in the lower grades. And middle-school teachers should toss tougher challenges at girls, in particular. Greater emphasis should also be placed on mentors, the students say, with colleges expanding outreach programs; and high schools with no nearby university could form volunteer mentoring clubs staffed with their best students and parents.
Ultimately, America's educational system needs to pay as much attention to bright students as it does to slow learners. That would give more U.S. kids a better chance to stand tall in international comparisons. And it just might help counteract the scientific illiteracy that threatens to drag down the performance of American businesses.
By Otis Port, with John Carey, in Washington