Columns / Discourse / October 1, 2014

But what about science and math?

I hate most things. One thing I used to hate was math at the tender age of 12 years. Practicing my multiplication tables, doing long division by hand, adding and subtracting fractions, these were the banes of my existence as far as I was concerned. Having been schooled in Bangkok and being of Indian descent, I lived in an environment where proficiency in mathematics was next to cleanliness, which in turn as we know is next to being godlike. Thus, my hatred of the subject, no matter how unsubstantiated, did not inhibit me from trying to master the necessary skills to be deemed “good at maths.” The respect that came with that phrase far outweighed the frustration from doing sums and the opportunity cost of dwelling over books for days on end.

Come present day, I attend Knox College in the United States of America majoring in both mathematics and economics. The math program here is arduous yet fulfilling and leaves me with the feeling that most decisions leading up to this point have been good ones. Yet, I don’t feel this country appreciates its STEM graduates as much as other nations. STEM fields are those pertaining to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and according to the U.S. Department of Education “only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.” Conversely, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the employment in STEM occupations is expected to have grown by 17 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared to 14 percent for non-STEM occupations. This is a basic concept of shortage in the demand and supply model of economics: the nation has a great and growing need for graduates to fulfill places in the STEM sector yet is short of the labor supply needed.

The U.S. government itself shut down NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011 citing fiscal budget constraints as the reason for this. A month after this, Fermilab’s Tevatron, the world’s second largest energy particle collider based in Illinois, was also shut down. The very collider, which confirmed the existence of the top quark in 1995 and helped solidify quantum physics and engineering in the eyes of the world is now non-operational, gathering dust underneath cornfields. It would seem that the United States government itself has lost its drive of fueling STEM-based fields that put the first man on the moon and split the atom, both proud achievements which I’m sure it never fails to bring up at UN parties.

It is not as if the incentive isn’t present. Recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree and less than three years’ experience in the workforce typically earn $39,700 a year, but that number can be more than double for those in STEM positions with the same experience. For example, Petroleum Engineering has a median pay of $88,700 for recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree and three years’ experience or less.

Something needs to be done about this and soon. Schools in the United States need to advocate STEM areas and make them more interesting, because knowing how and why things work is highly empowering at the very least. The government needs to recognize its global position in STEM research, with countries such as India and China quickly taking over as the world leaders on all matters scientific. Funding, both for educating and for national facilities, should be a priority if progress is one at all.

There is a multitude of clubs even here at Knox College which promote the arts and writing, that is all fine and good. But where is our engineering club? Who attends our chess club? Where do the students who wonder why the sky is blue gather? Is there such a place? Shouldn’t there be?


Amal Dua

Tags:  campus culture funding India math nasa science STEM United States

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