By Craig R. Barrett
One of the highlights of my year each spring is getting to meet the 40 finalists in the Intel (INTC ) Science Talent Search (Intel STS) competition. Spending time with these high school seniors, I can't help but feel optimistic about the future of American ingenuity. Some of them could one day win Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals, National Medals of Science, and MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grants." They may be teenagers, but the brilliance of their work makes my own PhD dissertation look dim by comparison.
But their achievements don't tell the whole story about U.S. education. Sadly, the Intel STS finalists are the exception, not the rule. In fact, American K-12 students are consistently outperformed by their foreign counterparts on international math and science assessments. And we have a graduation gap: While the number of jobs requiring technical skills is increasing, fewer U.S. students are entering -- and graduating from -- degree programs in science, math, and engineering.
Why does this matter? Science and technology are the engines of economic growth and national security in the U.S., and we are no longer producing enough qualified graduates to keep up with the demand. These graduates -- like the Intel STS students -- represent a resource vital to American competitiveness. It's a resource that is eroding at home even as it's being produced more rapidly and efficiently abroad.
For the past three decades about one-third of U.S. bachelor's degrees have been in science and engineering (the figure includes majors in the social sciences and psychology). Asian nations far outstrip that figure, with China at 59% in 2001, South Korea at 46% in 2000, and Japan at 66% in 2001. Of those degrees, the number awarded in engineering also varied greatly: In China, engineering accounted for 65% of all science and engineering degrees; in South Korea, 58%; and in Japan, 29%. In the U.S., that figure is less than 5%.
HOW DID WE GET HERE? A report released earlier this year by Achieve, a nonprofit organization that helps states raise academic standards, contends that we have institutionalized low performance through low expectations. Our high schools expect only a small number of students to take advanced math and science courses like upper-level algebra and geometry. Another Achieve study showed that much of the math content on state high school exit exams is basic at best, similar to material covered by many foreign students in the eighth grade.
That's particularly troubling because America's economic future lies in its next generation of workers and their ability to develop innovative technologies and products. This means we must strengthen math and science education in the U.S.
We must increase the number of students who can compete on a global level by, for example, committing to a goal to double the number of engineering graduates each year to more than 100,000. Many members of the National Governors Assn. have committed to significantly raising standards in high schools. But they can't do it alone. We in the business community can and should become involved. For example, companies can promote employee volunteerism, sending their best employees out into the schools to excite students about technical careers and encourage them in their studies. They can create scholarships or contribute to existing programs or professional associations that help students pursuing technical degrees. Or they can get involved with various industry/educator consortia working to increase the number of science, technology, engineering, and math majors.
At Intel, we've made the commitment to improving American education a top priority. We invest about $100 million a year in education programs -- some $1 billion to date. These include the Intel Teach to the Future program, which has trained 3 million teachers in 36 countries to integrate technology with learning; support for more than 100 Intel Computer Clubhouses in underserved communities worldwide, giving thousands of children a safe place to explore technology and pursue their dreams; and the Intel STS and Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, which offer thousands of students a forum to showcase their talents.
More U.S. businesses must get involved -- not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it will improve their bottom line, and the nation's, by creating a deeper pool of qualified talent at home.
Craig R. Barrett is Chairman of Intel Corp. and a board member of Achieve.