In his opening keynote presentation, James Gates, John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST),6 placed course-based research into a much broader educational and economic context.
Since World War II, economists have concluded that STEM-related activities are responsible for much of the growth in the U.S. economy. But the link between economic growth and new knowledge in the United States began well before World War II. As Goldin and Katz (2008) observed in their book The Race Between Education and Technology, the common school movement in the 19th century, which called for free public schooling of all U.S. children, helped create the best educated workforce in the world by the 1850s. And in 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act, which used federally owned land to support higher education. These investments in people “paid off enormously,” said Gates. In 1830 the size of the U.S. economy was less than half that of the United Kingdom’s economy, but it surpassed the British economy in the 1880s and was nearly 50 percent larger by 1900.
According to Gates, the high school movement in the early part of the 20th century, which increased the enrollment of 15- to 18-year-olds from 19 percent in 1910 to 73 percent in 1940,
6 For additional information about PCAST see https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast.
further increased the United States’ educational advantage compared with all other countries. The G.I. Bill of 1944, which opened up college to many more Americans, and the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which boosted STEM education in response to the space race of the time, greatly augmented direct governmental investments in education. By the year 2000, the U.S. economy was six times the size of the U.K. economy, and U.S. workers shared broadly in this greater prosperity.
However, since 1999, growth in the U.S. economy has become decoupled from gains in middle class income, Gates noted. Per capita gross domestic product has continued to climb while median household income has fallen.
Many of the forces behind this decoupling of economic growth and incomes are visible in the recovery from the recession that began in 2008. For example, in North Carolina, textile factories had been closing for many years before the recession hit. Since then, they have been reopening, but they are very different places. Today’s textile factories are dominated by robots and computers. Traditional jobs in textile factories have been replaced by jobs that involve controlling electronic devices. “Forty years ago you could graduate from high school, go to work in a factory—if you were a man—have a job for 30 years, raise a family, buy a house, put your children through college, and even have money for retirement and some vacations,” said Gates. “You can’t do that with a high school degree anymore.”
Almost no economic sector is immune from these trends, Gates observed. As an example, he cited ongoing work on not only self-driving cars but self-driving trucks, which could put millions of truck drivers out of work when such trucks are perfected in the future.
The United States has not excelled in creating or filling high-paying, technology-intensive jobs, said Gates. The United States today has the largest fraction of low-paying jobs of any developed country, which “makes it hard to sustain a middle class.” According to labor market projections, the three fastest growing job areas in the near future will be in health care, community services and arts, and STEM fields (Carnevale et al., 2013). But will the United States be prepared to fill those STEM positions, Gates asked?
The percentage of adults ages 16 to 34 performing below minimum standards of proficiency on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies Test of Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving puts the United States at the bottom (Table 2-1). For example, since 2003, the numeracy scores of U.S. millennials (the group of people born after 1980 through the mid-2000s) have declined from 264 to 247, for those whose highest level of education is “high school,” and from 296 to 285, for those reporting “above high school,” on a 500-point scale. The percentages of U.S. millennials scoring below Level 3 in numeracy—the minimum standard—has increased at all levels of educational attainment since 2003. U.S. millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree were outperformed by all other participating OECD countries except Poland and Spain, and the scores of U.S. millennials whose highest level of educational attainment was high school or less were lower than those of their counterparts in almost every other participating country. Even the “best-educated” millennials—those with a master’s or research degree—were
TABLE 2-1 Percentage of adults age 16-34 performing below the minimum standard of proficiency level on PIAAC literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE scales, by participate country/region: 2012.
|Country/region||Literacy; % below level 3||Numeracy, % below level 3||PS-TRE, % below level 2|
|England and Northern Ireland (UK)||49||58*||50*|
|Republic of Korea||30*||42*||40*|
– Not available
* Significantly different (p < .05) from United States.
SOURCE: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2012.
outperformed by their peers in all other OECD nations except for Ireland, Poland, and Spain. This performance looks no better when disaggregated along demographic lines. For example, across all levels of parental educational attainment—which was strongly correlated with skills in all countries—there were no countries where millennials scored lower than did those in the United States.
The United States has 92 million millennials, Gates noted, a number exceeding the number of baby boomers (Council of Economic Advisers, 2014). In general, the members of this group avidly use technology to look for information to help them make decisions. According to a variety of surveys that Gates cited, 94 percent use at least one outside source for guidance, 40 percent visit a website review to help them make purchasing decisions, and 50 percent use mobile
devices to read user reviews and research while shopping for products. But this familiarity with and use of technology is not necessarily translating into needed job skills, Gates said.
In the future, workers will need different sets of skills than were required in the past, Gates continued (e.g., Goodman et al., 2015). They will need to be able to change careers as the economy evolves. They will need to interact with employers and educational institutions, including colleges and universities, in different ways than they have in the past. The millennials are living in the middle of this shift, but the statistics on educational attainment and test scores cited above do not inspire confidence that they can meet the challenge, he said.
“So do we just give up?” asked Gates. “I hope not. That’s not the country that I have known for 64 years.” Gates was one of four co-chairs of a working group under the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that, in 2012, published a report titled Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. That report pointed out that traditional approaches to STEM education are failing many of the students who come to college wanting to major in these fields. In the first two years of college, more than half switch to other majors, despite having academic credentials that on average are not statistically different from those who remain as STEM majors.
To reverse this trend, the report made several recommendations that are relevant when considering course-based research. Most pertinent, it advocated replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses (Recommendation #2). Recommended actions include funding implementation of research courses for students in their first two years of college, and establishing collaborations between research universities, smaller 4-year colleges, and community colleges, to provide all students with access to research experiences. In part, said Gates, this will require changing the culture of higher education. While challenging, it can be done with appropriate administrative support; faculty members “will figure out how to optimize the reward system that’s presented to them,” he said.
The Engage to Excel report has led to several major new efforts, including additional interest and plans for increased investments in undergraduate STEM education by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and other federal agencies. (Box 2-1 describes President Obama’s interest in the issue.) Gates focused on several small-scale initiatives, primarily in physics, during his presentation. For example, he has been involved with a program at Hampton University (Virginia) known as the Hampton University Graduate Students (HUGS) program, in which for 30 years undergraduate and graduate students in physics have worked at the nearby Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility on experimental and theoretical topics of current interest in strong interaction theory. Similarly, at the University of Texas at Brownsville (which has a student body that is about 90 percent Hispanic), physics students work
at the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy, funded by NASA and NSF. At the University of Texas at El Paso, which also has a high percentage of Hispanic students, undergraduates work in the physics department on medical, applied, and atmospheric research projects. Gates also has been involving undergraduates in research in his own laboratory. At the time of the convocation, he was about to publish a paper in High Energy Physics-Theory—his seventeenth with undergraduate co-authors—co-written with one of his daughters and with a student who began college at a nearby community college. “The paper, by the way, is on string theory,” he said He emphasized that undergraduate research is possible on topics that many would consider beyond the reach of students at this level, and that students from different types of institutions that are not traditionally thought of as being engaged in research can participate.
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