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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Planning for the future, educating today”

    Lori Foleycolumnist
    Lori Foley
    columnist

    I spend some of my time on campus walking backwards and shouting facts about the UA to visiting groups of high schoolers. I love being a tour guide, but lately it’s gotten me worried.

    Of the approximately 60 students with whom I’ve interacted over the past three weeks, only four expressed interest in a science major. Four. Not only does that make the part of the tour where I tell everyone about the Koffler building awkward; it has me anxious that 20 years down the road, I’m going to have a hard time finding a doctor.

    I decided to see if the numbers I’d witnessed were just a fluke. A bit of research revealed that the situation wasn’t as dire as I had thought, but that there was still cause for concern.

    According to New York Times columnist and globalization evangelist Thomas L. Friedman, lagging interest and numbers in math, science and engineering majors and careers “”most threaten our standard of living”” in the U.S. As other countries, most notably India and China, become powerhouses in these disciplines, Friedman fears that the U.S. is getting left behind.

    As a share of the gross domestic product, federal funding for mathematic and scientific research has fallen 37 percent since 1970, according to the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation. The National Science Board reports “”a troubling decline in the number of Americans”” who are training to work in the sciences and as engineers. In the same report, the NSB noted that, while the U.S. once had the third-largest number of its young people (ages 18 to 24) getting degrees in the sciences, it has fallen to a ranking of 17th.

    While these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, given the source, what can largely be agreed upon is that math and science industries are among the fastest-growing sectors of employment right now, but the number of individuals getting trained for these jobs has remained level. This will cause a shortage of qualified workers in these industries down the road if things don’t change now. Our own state provides a perfect picture.

    Arizona is working hard to make itself nationally known for its biotechnology industry by developing clusters of research facilities, of which the crownpieces are the UA’s Institute for Biomedical Science and Biotechnology and the International Genomics Consortium.

    However, if there are to be employees in these new organizations 20 years down the road, we should hope to see more money going to fund K-12 science and math education.

    Because Arizona is ranked 49th of the states and Washington, D.C., for educational spending, it’s hard to see it being able to turn out a workforce able to support these new industries. The UA has many excellent programs that produce well-trained scientists, engineers and mathematicians. But if Arizona wants to sustain its biotech development, it’s going to have to focus from the bottom up and start training in primary and high school education.

    There have been some great initiatives taken already. The state implemented the Educator Development Program in 2003 to combat the “”fundamental shortages of adequately prepared educators in math, sciences and agricultural education,”” which it determined to be “”one of the most critical issues facing economic growth in Arizona.”” The program focuses on using the UA’s unique position to train a force of science and mathematics educators to serve the state. It will use money generated by 2000’s Proposition 301 to fund educational initiatives over the next 20 years.

    The money has been used to fund programs like the UA’s science teacher preparation program, which works to encourage achieving students to become teachers. But the reality is that the average starting pay of, say, a chemical engineer is $54,000, while the average starting pay of a teacher in Arizona is about $28,000. The highest quality math and science teachers need to be offered financial incentives if Arizona is to become and stay a biotech magnet.

    Friedman’s dire predictions can certainly be proved wrong, and Arizona can be a leader. But if that’s going to happen, we’ve got to put money behind our words and give math and science majors incentive to train the next generation.


    Lori Foley is a senior majoring in international studies and English. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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