We, of course, did not get into our intensifying plight overnight. Correspondingly, if we should fall decisively behind the leaders of the rest of the world, particularly in the prosperity drivers of science and engineering, it will take decades to catch up, if it is possible to do so at all. Consider the matter of producing one additional research scientist who can help to generate the knowledge from which future innovation and jobs will spring. Rather convincing empirical evidence suggests that most children who are “turned off” by mathematics and science have already arrived at that conclusion by the time they are in fourth grade. The die is usually cast by a teacher who finds teaching science and mathematics an unwelcome and intimidating burden or by a parent with a disinterest in or disdain for these fields.
One of the unusual characteristics of a technical education is that by eighth grade a student must most often decide whether to preserve the option to pursue such a career, for example, in science or engineering, by deciding whether or not to take algebra to be prepared for higher-level science and mathematics courses in high school. That is in distinct contrast with the decisions faced by those who might wish to preserve the option to become lawyers, bankers, accountants, or medical doctors. The reason for the disparity is the hierarchic nature of an education in mathematics that serves as the foundation of science and engineering. One cannot usefully study trigonometry until one has mastered algebra (only 13 states currently require algebra II for a high-school diploma … up from 2 states in 2005); one cannot study calculus until one has learned something of trigonometry; and one cannot study differential equations until one has studied calculus. So fundamental is mathematics that it is in essence the language of science and engineering.
Assuming that a person has completed the requisite courses during 4 years in high school and has successfully completed 4 years of undergraduate work (the average for engineers is now closer to 6 years), the person is prepared to begin a 6- or 7-year pursuit of a PhD, after which a creative research career can presumably begin. A few more years may in many cases be devoted to postdoctoral endeavors.
As one might suspect, there is a great deal of leakage along that extended educational highway. To begin with, about one-third of US eighth-graders do not receive a high-school diploma. And of those who do, about 40% do not go on to college. About half who do begin college do not receive a bachelor’s degree. Of those who do receive such a degree, two-thirds will not be in science or engineering. And of those who are US citizens and do receive degrees in either science or engineering, only about 1 in 10 will become candidates for a doctoral degree in those fields. And over half the doctoral candidates drop out before being awarded a PhD.