If you want kids to learn science, you need a better sales pitch.

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“I always hear stories about how we can’t find engineers, and that’s why we’re emphasizing Math and Science … We want to start making Science cool. I want people to feel about the next big energy breakthrough and the next big Internet breakthrough the same way they felt about the moonwalk.”

So said President Obama at a town hall meeting at Facebook’s headquarters yesterday. The President went on to say that he wanted to encourage females and minorities to pursue STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). “There’s got to be a shift in American culture when we realize this stuff is important,” he said.

First, American culture has always realized this “stuff” is important. Hence the phrase “American ingenuity.” But that isn’t the President’s only misunderstanding.

Second, the moonwalk is not remembered primarily as a technological breakthrough. It was an inspirational historical moment. While the people walking on the moon were scientists and engineers, they were not the scientists and engineers who designed and built the craft that took them to the moon. And the astronauts’ accomplishments were not due to their scientific background, but rather to their courage, preparation, and support from others. They were people who risked their lives to bring the scientific and technical efforts of others to their ultimate fruition. The reason the moonwalk captured the hearts and imaginations of the world is because it was an extremely risky, extremely dangerous adventure that was pulled off almost flawlessly as the result of the unwavering focus of government and industry on achieving that goal.

To compare it to some “internet breakthough”, by which he is implicitly referring to Facebook, does a disservice to the space program, then and now. And furthermore, none of the people who walked on the moon, designed the rockets, or worked in mission control became multi-billionaires doing it, which is important.

The need for American students to study STEM is one of the tired refrains in modern American politics. But plenty of people do study these things. They just don’t work in those fields. MIT grads are more likely to end up in the financial industry, where quants and traders are very well compensated, than in the semiconductor industry where the spectre of outsourcing to India and Asia will hang over their heads for their entire career.

As long as politicians tout the importance of STEM as being getting a job and global competition, the message won’t resonate. Any given individual student hearing this message is just as likely to conclude that all his classmates should study STEM to get jobs, but that he or she personally should continue working on their screenplay.

The real failure here is a total lack of leadership. If breakthroughs in energy and the internet are important, the government should explain the stakes. It should craft a “grand narrative” about our collective future if these breakthroughs are and are not pursued. This is not a hard story to write. The government should be able to articulate quite precisely with citations to demographic data what happens to the suburbs and rural areas at $5/gallon gas or $10/gallon gas. And how the resulting consolidation in urban areas would overload public transportation and services.

Likewise, the government should write the narrative of the alternative energy future, where energy is produced locally or regionally, without importing oil, or natural resources. How improvements in batteries and ultracapacitors could trigger an explosion in technologies of personal freedom that would alter the urban and suburban landscapes for the better.

But at present there is no narrative. And when there is no narrative, people believe the status quo will persist, even when all information points to the contrary. 

Related posts:

  1. Is Science Just a Matter of Faith?
  2. Science Journalism, or, at some point you just believe
  3. Is a National Strategic Narrative an Idea Whose Time Has Passed?
  4. National Academy of Sciences study finds that FBI’s anthrax evidence is inconclusive. Now to the voir dire
  5. Conservatives and liberals have different brains

53 Responses to If you want kids to learn science, you need a better sales pitch.

  1. JohnJ says:

    ‎”A country that supports a sensational media deserves the heroes it’s left with.” Marilyn vos Savant

  2. JohnJ says:

    “The real failure here is a total lack of leadership. If breakthroughs in energy and the internet are important, the government should explain the stakes.”

    I’d also like to point out that in a free society, the government doesn’t lead; the people do.

    • CubaLibre says:

      Most of the concrete, identifiable national artifacts that people claim are representative of the US and its spirit as a nation were the result of heavy collusion between government and industry, even reaching back into the 19th century. Railroads, airports, the military/wars, the highway system and suburban culture, stunningly huge public works projects (the Hoover Dam, TVA), the space program, even the national monuments – and especially the most profoundly American of all inventions, our particular form of constitutional republicanism itself. Certainly not all are (chiefly I can think of skyscrapers, which are much more fully privatized – but see urban planning), but most.

      I say “concrete, identifiable” to be distinct from more vague nationalisms related to pluckiness and ingenuity and hardiness that could be said to derive from “the people” instead of their government.

      • JohnJ says:

        Ford, IBM, football, baseball, the American film industry, etc, etc. The purest forms of American identity are found outside of government planning. Although, the wealthy have certainly used government to force other people to pay for their most most expensive schemes, and justified the same by claiming that they represent America better than normal Americans do.

        (“suburban culture”? Really?)

        • philtrum says:

          I don’t know what it’s like to live rurally, but as someone who grew up in a city centre and has relatives in the suburbs, yeah, “suburban culture” exists. You drive your car everywhere (in a newer ‘burb, you might not even have sidewalks), you interact with your neighbours only if you feel like it (you have a lot more choice about whom you interact with, period), you think nothing of travelling 5 or 10 miles for groceries, you patronize chain stores at the mall because that’s where the free parking is. You don’t necessarily have or use a lot of communal spaces (libraries, parks) because they’re a ways away and you have a yard. If you grow up in the suburbs, your parents probably drive you around a lot until you’re old enough to drive yourself, which means you’re dependent a lot longer than kids who can walk to school and activities.

          I suppose you could say it’s not so much “suburban culture” as driving culture. But dealing with other people from inside a car is psychologically quite different from dealing with them face to face.

        • CubaLibre says:

          When people cheat at the big American pro sports they hold Congressional hearings. They can barely eke out a good Congressional hearing when the entire American-based global financial market collapses.

          But you’re right, some of the enduring marks of American “greatness” come from the turn of the century capitalists (Ford, Hollywood etc.). My only point is that at least as many come from hardcore socialistic government/industry collusion. Presence or absence of government interference (or “leadership”) is simply not a relevant criterion for the subset of things labeled “great, American.”

          As for suburban culture, of course it exists, and of course it is one of America’s hallmarks. The one acre, white picket fence, single family home IS the c. 1950 “American dream” and it IS coterminal with suburban planning. I personally think it’s hideous but I don’t get to decide what the American dream is, apparently.

  3. Dan Dravot says:

    What the fuck do you know about what motivates engineers and entrepreneurs?

    • Pastabagel says:

      In what way is this comment productive? I’d actually like a thoughtful, detailed answer.

      • vandal says:

        Let me try, cause this pissed me off a bit too.

        “But plenty of people do study these things. They just don’t work in those fields. MIT grads are more likely to end up in the financial industry, where quants and traders are very well compensated, than in the semiconductor industry where the spectre of outsourcing to India and Asia will hang over their heads for their entire career.”

        See, I wanna say “shut up, you have no clue what I want to work in by taking engineering”. So there’s a significant amount of MIT grads going into finance. That’s MIT, MIT is weird, it’s prestigious because it’s prestigious. A lot people like to study business there because they want some practical and sell-able technical and analysis skills. Study aerospace at Texas A&M, you’ll damn well be an aerospace engineer, study computer science at Carnegie Mellon you’ll be into that field, etc. I don’t want to do finances, I wanna do engineering, don’t tell me my motivation based on some crap USA article you read.

        That being said, there are fields and such that give the narrative you want. At my school it’s called “Engineering and Public Policy”, they do exactly what you’re talking about, research into future effects of technology. It’s been around, there are meeting for everything where technical people get together to plan out how the risk and such of whatever tech they’re working on will effect such community it will be in. They’re probably, no 100% likely, is a paper somewhere that shows what would happen to American life should gas rise to $10. People in the government, decision makers and such, have read it. The president is likely aware on some level and it’s why he’s encouraging the sciences so hard because he’s aware of the risk without it. Why don’t they just give you that paper? Because they probably figure regular people won’t care to read it. The paper is kinda boring to read. The moonwalking was cool to watch.

        I think Obama should have played a Kennedy early in his presidency. Maybe to the EPA, say “I DEMAND ALTERNATIVE FUEL IN TEN YEARS!” flood it with funding, made a spectacle of it, get all the major scientists/engineers united in a major way. Alas the man is a bit afraid of startling the old in this country.

        • vandal says:

          goddamn I made a lot of errors in that

        • Pastabagel says:

          So somehow we completely disagree with each other but arrive at exactly the same conclusion. Obviously, some people studying engineering go into engineering. But if MIT is supposed to be one of the top engineering schools, and most of their grads end up in finance, that means that the nation’s top engineering grads are not ending up in engineering. This is partly due to compensation. Grads aren’t going to work in engineering if the pay in finance is 3 times higher.

          But some grads might work on certain engineering problems if what was at stake in solving those problems was clearly articulated AND if they thought they could have a direct hand in that solution.

          • vandal says:

            No, I mean, just no. Your logic is: “MIT has top engineering students” -> “Some MIT engineers go into finance”—-> “All our top engineers are going into finance!”.

            And that is wrong.

            I would say the ones that go into finance aren’t top at engineering. Some average engineer couldn’t get that job at Intel starting at 70K, so they took business classes as well, now work in finance for about as much rather than taking another engineering job at less. Top engineering student got that job at Intel and now works at Intel, etc.

            You don’t just get a job at finance as an engineer. True, finance companies look at engineers but they expect that engineer to have some finance background, trust me you can’t get it otherwise. There are MIT grads going into finance, MIT and other engineers teach finance and such to those who want it. If a top engineer wants to stay top they often do research in their field, projects, etc, they don’t do much finance. All the best engineers I know don’t do finance, they do research.

            What I’m saying is that some do finance, cause they felt like doing finance, maybe the money is more, but engineer salaries aren’t terrible, usually better than business majors on average. The best engineers do engineering, they majored in it for a reason, they’ll make fine money and they probably enjoy it more than they would at finance. You shouldn’t declare what engineers are doing based on what a small percent at MIT are doing.

            Oh, and there are pretty great engineers besides those from MIT, quit saying that too. TLP once mentioned how those in the know know that there’s not much difference between ivies and others, it’s true. “And is that average class at an Ivy really better than the average class at a state school? I’ve taught at both: no. NB that in my example both the state students and the Ivy students had the same teacher– me. I know there are differences between schools, I’m not naive, but most of those are social/political/sexual and not educational. An Ivy is “better” because its brand is better, like a car. No I don’t mean “hey, they all get you there” I mean that the engine of a Toyota and a Lexus is the same, the difference is the leather seats. You want to pay for brand, go ahead; but the people in the know aren’t fooled by your fancy car and windshield sticker and the people who aren’t in the know can only praise or envy you, but they’re in no position to help you attain your goals.”.

            An engineer from MIT, engineer from some stateU, 5 years into the field and the school doesn’t matter a bit.

            But really, a lot of people think the way you do, about engineering. “Ah they just do finance in the end!” cause someone only did engineering for the money right? Not cause they have a passion, just the money and stable job, engineering faltered in that and they went to finance. Some might just want money, but not all.

            (oh, and the pay in finance isn’t 3 times higher, where’d you get that?)

            Oh, and grads know what’s at stake, they just studied the stakes, the stakes are crammed down engineering throats. Direct hand? No engineer gets a direct hand, it’s always a system of thousands working on one project, you may get to be a fingernail.

  4. Psychohistorian says:

    This conclusion just doesn’t make sense. Even if I knew with great precision what would happen if gas were $10 a gallon, why should I go take a job that’s going to get outsourced when I can get rich working in finance?

    The main problems are that good science teachers are relatively rare – it likely requires a combination of math/science skill, people skills, and general charisma. These traits are fairly uncommon and are really, really well rewarded in other fields. And the people who have them may not be particularly inclined to enjoy the company of children.

    On top of that, Americans don’t *want* good science education as a practical matter. The epistemology that forms the bedrock of science is antithetical to (at the very least) fundamentalist religions. Furthermore, a more rational or scientifically literate populace would probably demand very, very different politicians from the ones we have today.

    It’s an interesting and serious problem, but I really don’t see how a government narrative of alternative energy being our future would fix it. What you need is a private, cultural shift in which people encourage and reward their children for pursuing interests in science. It’s unclear the government can do much to effectuate this – rather, when it happens, it will cause some shift in government action. This is all exceedingly difficult when those people are themselves scientifically illiterate, and where science often clashes with their traditional values.

    • kataclysm says:

      Exactly. It is nearly impossible to sell rational endeavors and arguments to a largely irrational culture. And at present, we have several alarming current cultural trends: a) desire for immediate self-gratification even at apparent eventual future ruin (okay, that’s how our brains are wired, but earlier iterations of our society at least paid lip service to self-discipline as a virtue), b) valuation of material goods/tangible benefits over intangibles (“why should I take an intellectually-stimulating job that benefits everyone but pays dirt, when I can take the money and run?”), and c) an intensely hyperreligious environment that is actively hostile to critical thought. It’s a perfect storm which guarantees the failure of science education: hell, I’m a scientist, I spend every damn day working around fellow scientists with doctorates and everything, and most of them don’t understand anything about how or why science works, they only go through the motions of doing science. And they’re the best of the best, they’re the cream of the crop given our current educational systems and cultural context. It’s terrifying, and we don’t have enough time to fix it — I think it would take a massive cultural shift that would probably span multiple generations, due to the deeply ingrained attitudes and perverse incentives that we have right now.

    • greenpad says:

      On top of that, Americans don’t *want* good science education as a practical matter. The epistemology that forms the bedrock of science is antithetical to (at the very least) fundamentalist religions.

      Wow, spoken like a true bigot. Please explain to me how my non-belief in the religious faith of macro-evolution leads me down a road where I am unable to design computer chips.

      FYI I’m a deeply religious man who designs computer chips. As are many of my coworkers.

      This is all exceedingly difficult when those people are themselves scientifically illiterate, and where science often clashes with their traditional values.

      What does science have to do with values? I thought science was science??? I didn’t think values played into it? If my values can sway the results of my experiment, then it’s not science.

      I’m not trying to make you angry. I’m sure you’ve truly bought into “Christians are ruining science” and “belief in evolution is necessary for ALL scientific disciplines”, but these are lies propagated for other people’s political and personal gains.

      Any time you see a news article saying “A is out to get B, and it’s not right”, take a step back and try to figure out who’s out to get A. 9 times out of 10 you’ll see the real motivation behind the article.

      ..and that’s what thelastpsychiatrist is always writing about!

      • peakbagger66 says:

        Actually, “designing computer chips” is more engineering than Science. There is a difference. I would not classify a chip etcher as a basic “hard sciences” guy no more than I would classify a programmer as one.

  5. DJames says:

    Dan Dravot— although I’m sure you this isn’t the answer you’re looking for, some of the tech/science/engineer gentlemen I know are extremely adroit with finding/organizing porn and keeping evidence of such nonexistent. While it’s no space race, it does indeed seem to provide a needed service.

    As for PB’s thesis— certainly a better sales pitch is needed, a Grand Narrative (perhaps a more serious national narcissism?). Better leadership? Meh. Sure, I guess. What we actually need, I’d guess, is another enemy on par with the Soviet Union. One of the world’s most invigorating and enduring motivations is Us vs. Them.

    Aren’t terrorists, Iran, etc., scary enough? Nah. We know too much about them, and are so much better equipped, to really fear them they way we recoiled and then jumped off our couches re: Sputnik.

    So… it’d probably be best if Iran gets some sweet nukes. Imagine all the tiger moms that’ll spawn!*

  6. edumds says:

    You know what was the first great american Narrative?
    taxation without representation
    you know what followed it?
    You know what was the second great american Narrative?
    free the slaves
    you know what followed it?
    a bigger War
    You know what was the third great american Narrative?
    the New Deal
    you know what followed it?
    …and what a War.

    America doesn’t need a new Narrative it needs a return to common sense, personal responsibility and individual reliance…oh, and by the way you never really needed to sell science to kids.

    • kataclysm says:

      By that argument, if America hadn’t had any narratives, we would still be under colonial rule of the British Empire and people would still be sold as chattel.

    • Tiburon. says:

      As if “common sense, personal responsibility and individual reliance” isn’t a narrative in itself.

    • sunshinefiasco says:

      You get wi-fi in your drum circle? Lucky…

      Also, other then the last clause, I’m not sure what this has to do with the post. Are you lost?

  7. Jerboa says:

    I can’t speak for engineering, but for most fields in science there aren’t enough good jobs to justify spending the time and effort required to get a doctorate. It’s been two years since I got mine, and I still have some pretty serious regrets about switching career paths from CS to biology in college.

    I think Philip Greenspun put it best, “Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States.”* I don’t need a sales pitch, I need a year where I make $30,000 or more. It looks like this coming year is going to be promising on that front, but I’m going to be thirty-two by the time it’s over. So, whenever a student comes to me and says they’re thinking about a career in science, I’m going to do my best to dissuade them.

    *From this article on why science is not a good career:

    • Sal Paradise says:

      I’d like to add to this and say that the current tone in academia is that new STEM students are acting quite rationally–and leaving the field right after they graduate. The most recent copy of Nature (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/full/472276a.html) highlights the overabundance of trainees and the accompanying lack of STEM jobs available (in academia).

      Granted, this article’s focus is on academia versus industry (perhaps another PO article in the making?), but from my experience the academic rhetoric tends to look at the situation as: academia = STEM jobs, industry = anything else.

      • philtrum says:

        I see this as part of a larger pattern in which “education” (meaning formal, expensive university education, not on-the-job training or autodidacticism) is lazily presented as a cure for all that ails us economically. In the words of another blogger, “if everyone gets a Master’s degree, then everyone will be a manager.”

        It’s a race to the bottom, in which people devote more of their time, defer more of their other goals, and take on more debt in pursuit of a prize that is worth a little less every decade. But who wants to be left behind?

        • sunshinefiasco says:

          As a recent grad, I think it’s worth noting that it wasn’t our idea for everyone to need 4 master’s degrees. It happens like this:

          I want to work in my field, or at least something similar.

          Jobs in my field require experience or master’s degrees. (mulitply that by a 100 because the economy’s in the shitter).

          I cannot get experience in my field because I can’t get a job.

          I cannot volunteer/do internships to acquire experience because I have to bartend/work retail/something else because I owe various banks tens of thousands of dollars. Plus, I have to pay rent, and sometimes I like beer, or christmas presents for other people. This is also why it is hard to save money.

          I still can’t get a job in my field, because I still have no experience, and now my resume has the choice of the last line reading: Rooty Tooty’s Bar and Grill or having a gap of several months.

          I am tired of busting my ass for pennies. My parents are completely depressed with what has become of me, but have offered money for a GRE course. Hey, I could defer my loans if I were back in school. Plus, maybe then I could get a job in my field.

          We’re not the ones demanding thatwe have “a manager’s” qualifications for an entry level position. The only people willing to train a recent grad are major corporations and a few smaller companies. If you weren’t looking to sell things, good luck, hopefully you get into AmeriCorps or Teach for America, or you’re a decent waitress.

          • philtrum says:

            Oh, I really, really did not mean to criticize people in your situation. I and many of my friends are in similar boats.

            I was thinking more of politicians who talk about helping everyone afford higher education. A noble goal, but it doesn’t do anything about the job situation.

    • octo says:

      So, whenever a student comes to me and says they’re thinking about a career in science, I’m going to do my best to dissuade them.

      You kinda just sound bitter.

      Also, those adjustments don’t account for the fact that scientists often get to have fun more often than other careers.

      • Jerboa says:

        I’m not bitter at all. I knew exactly what I was getting into, and at the time I would have done it even if it involved living in a cell like a monk for the rest of my life. I only have myself to blame for my decisions, and even though I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school if I had the chance to redo everything, there are worse ways to lose seven years of your life.

        That said, I have an obligation not to give my students shitty career advice, and that involves recommending against graduate school.

        Regarding fun, science doesn’t have much of an edge over your average profession. Most of the fun of work comes from mastering difficult skills and applying them to important problems. You can get that and the other things that make for a great job from lots of different professions. Another thing most people don’t realize is that science involves a lot of repetitive tasks. There’s nothing inherently fun about spending a week doing nothing but dissecting fruit fly brains.

  8. octo says:

    1) “We want to start making Science cool.” will never make science cool.

    • philtrum says:

      Indeed. I remember the same hand-wringing when I was a kid in the early ’90s, and it made me roll my eyes, and it did nothing to change the fact that science classes were miserable for me. And I was a reasonably smart kid.

    • vandal says:

      Actually, I got to say cartoon network is going to raise us a nerdy generation. Well, that and computer raised children, it being a cool skill to know how to fix a computer like knowing how to fix bikes. But I’m sitting there watching shows like Generator X (uses the words nanites, nanobots, etc) about a boy with control over small super computers. Star Wars making a come back in a cool way, along with super heroes. Build and Destroy, explosions and trying to teach physics, etc.

      My nephew was prescribed glasses, but he likes them cause they make him look like some kid on some show. I take care of kids at a after school program, they brag about being better in math, cause some cool dude is on cartoons. Like I wanted to be a writer cause I think Ginger did it as a girl, that didn’t last, cause I just got tired of writing. But I wonder sometimes. Nerdiness being encouraged in this culture, if it’ll last and all.

  9. octo says:

    2) Neither will articulating
    “quite precisely with citations to demographic data what happens to the suburbs and rural areas at $5/gallon gas or $10/gallon gas. And how the resulting consolidation in urban areas would overload public transportation and services. “


    Screw “Real Life Applications” Want Kids to Learn Science? Put This in Every Textbook:

    You can ignore this book if you want.
    Go ahead. Coast through class.
    But one thing in life is certain:
    Someday, someone will clone a dinosaur.
    And that person will be an expert in a million things you think are boring right now.
    And if you don’t study, and work, and think
    One day you’ll watch that person saddle up, put on a cowboy hat, and ride a T. Rex
    From a monitor.
    Until your boss asks why you’re wasting company time.

    Honestly, that pretty much sums it up for me anyway.

  10. operator says:

    But at present there is no narrative. And when there is no narrative, people believe the status quo will persist, even when all information points to the contrary.

    If we assume that those in public office do not suffer from confoundingly-great myopia when looking upon present trends, this suggests that their words are chosen carefully for a contrary purpose: paint such an unrealistic picture that, when the future (five years ago it was the housing bubble, now it’s $10/gallon gasoline) does arrive, it is so alien to the public that it is willing to accept whatever emergency measures (read: well-planned plutocratic powerplays) are necessary to ensure the survival of the United States corporations which own the United States.

    • BluegrassJack says:

      Large corporations don’t own the United States.

      The United States does own certain ones like General Electric, because crony capitalism encourages Jeffrey Immelt to get in bed with the Obama Administration. Their resulting lovechild is congressional legislation favorable to…..General Electric(!), at the expense of other large corporations who also want on the gravy train. That is Fascism to its core. Remember Adolph Hitler and his Volkswagen jewel.

  11. postroad says:

    Most of the comments here are either too political too snarky or without much merit.
    When our economy was in better shape, few went into science; now, with outsourcing, we blame the newer economy for lack of interest in science.
    Might it be that in science as in so many other ways, we are fast losing our “exceptionalist” role?

  12. BluegrassJack says:

    People working in the education business keep telling the public that science courses must be made “fun” and “cool” to attract American students.

    Science courses like chemistry, math, biology, physics are far from being fun or cool. They are difficult and require a lot of work. Kids in middle and high school can easily find electives that don’t tax their brain, cause sweat, and permit lots of text messaging, which definitely is fun and cool. The instant gratification culture that “adults” demand today is passed on to their kids.

    The education business is very helpful in recommending student loans for instant gratification courses of study, which may – or may not – be repaid. Those loans defaulted upon will be paid by taxpayers. Problem solved.

    • philtrum says:

      That doesn’t reflect my experiences in junior high and high school. Unless school requirements have changed dramatically in the past 15 years, or American schools are radically different from Canadian ones, I don’t think this is true. When I was in high school in the 1990s, students under the age of 14 or 15 (Grade 10/tenth grade) didn’t get electives at all, and Grade 10 students only a limited number.

      And math and science classes aren’t “cool” in the sense that text messaging your friends is cool, but they don’t have to be painful. Most of mine weren’t. And I’m not sure where this notion comes from, that you’re not really learning/accomplishing anything unless you’re miserable. It’s not at all the case.

      • philtrum says:

        I should clarify, since I did say my junior high science classes were miserable; I was punished in junior high science when I asked questions, or when my experiments didn’t turn out the way the hypothesis said they should. That was the miserable part, and unsurprisingly, I didn’t learn much from those classes, except how to make up data. High school was much better.

  13. Guy Fox says:

    DJames alluded to it, and it is the reason for the significance of the moon landing for Americans. The achievement wasn’t assessed in absolute terms, being great for its own sake; it represented the restoration of America’s ‘rightful’ position relative to its other , the Soviet Union. After the Soviets achieved the H-bomb first and beat America into space, there was a bit of an existential crisis. The moon landing restored the proper order of things.

    The narrative that will probably succeed in spurring people to invest in themselves for their country’s benefit is probably going to be ‘Us vs. Them’. It’s just hard to get going now because America’s self-image is murky, making it hard to sell as a role model for the world, and because the obvious ‘them’s either aren’t worthy challengers (Russia), aren’t obviously beatable (China), or aren’t morally inferior (India). Once the Us vs. Them narrative gets traction, war will get more likely, as edmunds said.

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  16. fatmarauder says:

    So I’ve taught STEM for 30 years. I’ve watched the enrollment plummet and the preparation through K-12 hopeless if you’re a woman or a minority. More than 50% of the population does not participate in STEM related disciplines.

    You want to see what’s valued in this country? Ain’t those poor guys getting their butts shot off in Afghanistan (any different than my generation when we came back from ‘Nam and got dumped on the street). Ain’t STEMmers. It’s sports stars and entertainers. So why would I want to be in STEM if I’m a woman, minority, or vet. Or just a naive kid watching the tube. It’s a culture thing…..

  17. isdal says:

    MIT grads are more likely to end up in the financial industry, where quants and traders are very well compensated, than in the semiconductor industry where the spectre of outsourcing to India and Asia will hang over their heads for their entire career.

    This is something I see repeated over and over again, despite the fact that it is false. The MIT graduation survey [mit.edu] lists the following career destinations for people graduating with a M. Eng.:

    Computer Software 39.6%
    Engineering 16.7%
    Consulting 10.4%
    Industrial and
    Consumer Manufacturing 8.3%
    Computer Hardware 6.3%
    Financial Services 2.1%

    MIT engineering students are going into engineering fields, and not into finance as the author “Pastabagel” incorrectly states.

    Also, thanks for emailing my password back in cleartext…

    • Pastabagel says:

      You’re welcome.

      So of all the charts in that self-reported MIT survey that support my point that “MIT grads are more likely to end up in the financial industry, where quants and traders are very well compensated, than in the semiconductor industry”, including the table on page 11 (33% of undergrads go into finance and consulting), page 13 (2% of Bachleors in computer hardware jobs), and page 3 (showing only 3 computer companies on the top 19 employers of bachelor’s grads vs. 9 banks or consulting firms; and showing that the top 3 employers of masters grads are BCG, McKinsey, and Bain in that order), you cherry-picked the graph showing 39% of engineering master’s graduates go into the computer software industry–even though my statement clearly identified the semiconductor (i.e. hardware) industry.

      This is MIT’s own statement:
      Top Employment Sectors for MIT Graduates 2011 (Undergrads)
      Aerospace/defense 8%
      Biological science 8%
      Computer technologies 13%
      Consulting 18%
      Energy/utilities 6%
      Finance 16%
      Other engineering 11%

      That’s a total of 34% in finance and consulting.

      And why did you put my name in quotes?

  18. Pingback: Why Science Is a Lousy Career Choice « The Compulsive Explainer

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  21. STEM bugs me as an acronym because it equates various stuff that’s not equivalent. Engineering is a trade skill and so is computer programming, but ecology? Abstract mathematics? If the US government isn’t going to fund enough “basic research” to keep the S&M of the STEM afloat, then why push students toward “you know, that math and sciencey stuff, the hard stuff, the left brain stuff”?

    Come to think of it, is there any reason beyond vaguely assming that “technology” corresponds to the cosmological constant in the solow growth model to think that the government should be in the business of guessing which kinds of human capital the market is going to value over the next few decades?

    If the problem is too many 19-year-olds wasting money on degrees in Postmodern Critical Theory, perhaps the place to look is the super-profitability of student loans (a more senior debt than any other type) and/or rising cost of reading & discussing Baudrillard.