Wednesday, August 13, 2008

STEM Anxiety

The stories of brain drain are much exaggerated. I'm amused that only now I am making the connection between out-migration hyperbole and the manufactured crisis about declining maths and science skills of Americans. Bill Gates is playing on our irrational brain drain fears:

Let's not exaggerate: science and engineering are not the new Comp Lit or philosophy, those undergraduate majors for which employment prospects are so dicey that parents practically beg their kids to go to a trade school instead. But about those claims that the United States suffers from a shortage of scientists and engineers—claims such as the National Science Foundation's warning in 2004 of "an emerging and critical problem of the science and engineering labor force"—Vivek Wadhwa, founder of Relativity Technologies and executive-in-residence at Duke University, has a terse response: "It's a lie."

Keeping Mr. Wadhwa's unequivocal assessment in mind, consider posts about domestic migration found at Civic Analytics and Urbanophile. When people leave Ohio, a common destination is a neighboring state (Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania). Inter-city moves are also more commonly instate. To use Urbanophile terms: Why would a person move from one weak city (state) to another? I'll leave that as an open question for policymakers to ponder.

Returning to the issue of the shortage of engineers and the like, I submit this from the Kauffman Foundation of Entrepreneurship:

In this sense, the steady drumbeat for 'more scientists and engineers' begins to appear a bit shallow. We need them, of course, but before simply recruiting more students into the existing disciplines, maybe we should think about restructuring those disciplines. In an odd way, the age-old story of specialization, increasing returns, and greater knowledge that continues to shape the economy, may push us toward an educational system that emphasizes integrative, consilient thinking.

The above describes Disneyburgh. It could describe a number of Rust Belt cities if significant educational reform were possible AND we could get beyond the myths informing bad policy. But if you won't take my word for it, then listen to Vivek Wadwha. India's global tech ascendancy still leaves a lot to be desired.

I propose applying the model of Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center to Rust Belt urban primary and secondary schools. My plan is to revitalize these cities with a value proposition akin to what is helping Akron outperform the likes of Cleveland, Canton, Youngstown, and Dayton:

The Best Urban School System in the State. APS has its challenges, but does urban education as well as anyone in Ohio. The Ellet and Firestone clusters help keep taxpayers living in the city. Boutique schools like Miller South and (soon) the Inventure Place sci/tech school enhance the revenue stream by bringing students in from out of district. APS has also put special programs like Project GRAD into the most challenging schools with some results.

The goal isn't to catch up with the Chinese or Indians. The aim should be to work with our strengths, which is a creative approach to problem solving. Take the best that Rust Belt universities have to offer and integrate it into shrinking city schools, making them the best place to learn how to compete in a global marketplace.

1 comment:

The Urbanophile said...

I don't know about engineering or comp sci. But MIS degree programs around the country have suffered a collapse in enrollment and many of them were merged with other programs. India is killing that profession. It's not so much that you aren't in demand today, but the long term trend lines are bad. IT is my profession and I could not recommend that any young person today go into it. I'm far from the only one who feels that way.