Time for innovation in math, science education

August 26, 2005|By Donald N. Langenberg

LED BY the Business Roundtable, 15 of the nation's leading business organizations recently called for actions aimed at "doubling the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates by 2015."

While this is certainly a laudable vision, more of the same - even the doubling of the numbers - will not be sufficient.

In addition to more science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates, it is equally important to have better graduates, differently educated and trained. That requires attending to the deficiencies of our education system.

During the past several decades, calls for education reform, with emphasis on K-12, have become familiar battle cries. The business organizations' report is no exception, calling for a "focused, long-term, comprehensive initiative by the public and private sectors to upgrade K-12 mathematics and science teaching."

Several federal agencies (including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education) have supported studies of how mathematics and science can be better taught in order to foster better learning and student academic performance. The No Child Left Behind law has begun to focus public attention on the performance of our schools. But growing knowledge about how our nation's elementary and secondary schools might be made better has yet to have pervasive effects in our classrooms.

What's more, the education reform movement has largely overlooked that what is true of our elementary and high schools is comparably true of our colleges and universities. The further up the academic ladder one ascends, the more traditional and hidebound the curriculum.

But there are signs of change in the wind. An example is a virtual revolution in the design of the science/mathematics master's degree.

This degree traditionally has been viewed either as a minor milestone on the path to a doctorate or as a booby prize for failing to complete that journey. Graduate programs in mathematics and the sciences typically are viewed as preparing doctoral-level researchers for research careers.

Yet our universities have many very capable students who excel in mathematics and science and wish to pursue careers based on their skill and knowledge in those fields without traversing the long and tortuous path to a research career.

For about a decade, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has fostered the development of professional science master's programs leading to a new type of degree intended to meet the needs of such students and their potential employers.

These are designed to train science and mathematics professionals who can run things, scientists who have skills beyond their home disciplines, skills that may be drawn from other relevant disciplines or from the management sciences.

Imagine someone who has a firm grounding in Genomics and computer science and who also knows how to write a business plan, read a budget, negotiate with the Food and Drug Administration, lobby Congress, etc. There are about 100 such programs in about 50 universities nationwide, and their first graduates have already moved into important positions in many high-tech businesses. Several Maryland universities are developing such programs.

In the 20th century, this kind of academic innovation created the master of business administration degree. That innovation now brings to our shores thousands of foreign nationals who seek to learn how to become business leaders. In this century, when business is increasingly based on recent technological innovation, it stands to reason that business leaders who really know science and technology will be able to contribute skills that are critically important to their enterprises' global competitiveness.

Shouldn't more of those business leaders be Americans?

Donald N. Langenberg is chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland and professor of physics and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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