Though the United States has always prided itself as a world leader in innovation and technology, the number of American students to major in science or engineering has declined steadily in recent decades. Economics Prof. Dimitriy Stolyarov attributes these trends to student perceptions that science and engineering are not well-paying career choices and to poor pre-college preparation in math and the sciences.

“There is a fundamental reason why the economic incentive of becoming a lawyer is more than the economic incentive from becoming a physicist,” Stolyarov said. “That’s because the product that the physicist produces may become valuable 30 years from now or 100 years from now, when the physicist is already dead.”

According to the National Science Board, the number of degrees in science and engineering awarded by U.S. schools to American students is declining – and has been for well over a decade.

Reports released in 1999 and 2003 show there has been little to no change in the number of undergraduates receiving degrees in engineering between 1981 and 1995. Yet the percentage of U.S. degrees awarded to foreign-born students has increased, indicating that the number of American students graduating with degrees in either the sciences or engineering is on the decline.

From 1990 to 2000, the percentage of foreign-born students receiving a bachelor’s degree increased from 11 to 17 percent of all students receiving degrees, a master’s degree from 19 to 29 percent and a doctorate from 24 to 38 percent. Stolyarov believes this decline directly correlates with student performance in math and science before they decide on a college major.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 1998 that students in American elementary schools score lower on standardized tests in science and math than students in elementary schools in other industrialized nations. Those gaps in test scores continue through American secondary education, leaving American students with rankings below such countries as Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands, according to the NCES.

The report is based on the results of the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which involved more than a half million students in 41 countries around the world. In the tests, American eighth graders scored 28th in math and 17th in science, and 12th graders scored 19th in math and 16th in science.

Top nations for eighth-grade math were Singapore and Japan, and the top nations for 12th grade math were the Netherlands and Sweden.

Stolyarov said he sees a distinct difference between American students’ educational experiences and the teaching of math and science in the world’s highest-scoring nations, including his native Russia.

“Here, the American society is highly individualistic,” Stolyarov said. “Every educational subject is a matter of debate. People are trained to be decision-makers, and people are trained to be critical thinkers that question authority rather than conform.”

Stolyarov said the top nations at each grade level tested in TIMSS all have much more conformist societies than the United States. Stolyarov added that it is not only American educational attitudes that account for the lack of interest in engineering and science, but the economic structure as well.

U.S. society has “a very unequal distribution of incomes,” Stolyarov said. The highest-scoring nations in the TIMSS tests also pay teachers relatively better than in the United States, making it “easier for smarter people to become teachers,” he said.

“Here, (in America), the smartest people go into law or financial services rather than teaching,” he said.

Stolyarov added that universities in general are not providing their students with enough information on salaries and other economic incentives to foster continued interest in engineering and especially the sciences.

Engineering senior Samuel Serrano said when he made the decision to pursue an engineering degree, he was confident it would yield a secure, well-paid job, but that the recent economic slowdown has made him less certain. “Three years ago I would have made the argument that as a computer science engineer I would have a job,” Serrano said.

He added that he has remained in the College of Engineering despite a strong interest in film “because it’s already too much of an investment.”

Engineering senior Julia Angstrom, however, had somewhat different motives for choosing engineering. “I think (money) did play a large role,” Angstrom said. “Not necessarily because I wanted to have more cash, but that it made it seem like the work I would be doing would be more valuable. I felt that it would make a larger contribution to the world.”

Angstrom said despite the recent economic trends, she still believes she will make a valuable contribution through a career in engineering.

Despite their different motives, both Serrano and Angstrom have stuck with their initial degree choices, but according to the College of Engineering about 28 percent of students either quit the school or transfer to another major.

One such student is Mark Eadie, an LSA senior studying history, who originally declared aerospace engineering at the end of his freshman year.

“I have nothing against engineering,” he said. “I really liked the stuff that I did. It just didn’t fulfill me.”

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