Sizing Up America's High-Tech Talent

Business and political leaders have repeatedly warned that America's scientists and engineers are in short supply. However, some economists say the numbers indicate the opposite — a glut of high-tech workers. A panel of experts debate whether America's schools produce the scientific workforce needed to compete globally.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're in Washington, D.C., today, broadcasting from the Grosvenor Auditorium at the National Geographic Society. And the message from business and political leaders is clear: America needs to produce more scientists and engineers to compete with rising economic powerhouses like China and India, or, they warn, we may be left in the dust.

President Obama has urged America to rise to the challenge, as it has done before.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A half-a-century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets, we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation's Sputnik moment.

FLATOW: Can the U.S. take advance of this generation's Sputnik moment? U.S. universities turn out thousands of scientists and engineers. So does America need to produce more scientists and engineers or just do a better job of employing the ones that we've got?

What about all those kids in grade school who start out their young lives curious about the world around them? You know, kids are young natural scientists, they get into all kinds of trouble investigating things around them. How can schools keep them interested in science?

That's what we're going to be talking about this hour. If you're here in our audience, I invite you to step up to one of the microphones here, on the left or the right side of the room, and ask your questions. And if you're on Twitter, you can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And of course, you can always go to our website at sciencefriday.com or leave some messages for us also on Facebook.

Let me introduce my guests. Dr. Charles Vest is president of the National Academy of Engineering and president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Welcome to the program.

CHARLES VEST: Thank you.

FLATOW: Dr. Michael Kassner is director of research at the Office of Naval Research. He's also a professor at the University of Southern California. Thank you for being with us.

MICHAEL KASSNER: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Dr. Lindsay Lowell is director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

LINDSAY LOWELL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Anthonette Pena is an eighth-grade science teacher at Stuart-Hobson Middle School - she does look like she could be in eighth grade - Middle School in Washington, D.C. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANTHONETTE PENA: Thank you.

FLATOW: Let's start talking about the sort of - a conundrum, I think, at least in the statistics that we're looking at. How - Dr. Vest, let me start with you. You were on the high-profile committee that drafted the National Academy's report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," in 2005 and the sequel, more of a horror sequel, more like a horror movie, called "Category 5," like the hurricane, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." What was the take-away message of the original and the second report?

VEST: The take-away message, Ira, was that the United States today is still the most innovative country on the planet. We have great scientists. We have great engineers. We have great industries. But every indicator we look at about the path we're on to the future is pointing in the wrong direction.

And we're facing global competition, which is good because education, research and so forth are growing in the rest of the world. We've got to keep the leadership position, and we believe that we need to take very concerted action to grab that position and run with it.

FLATOW: And there was five years between the first report and the second, follow-up report. Did anything get better for us in those five years?

VEST: Yes, what did get better is that through both the end of the Bush administration, the early years of the Obama administration, the government actually did get pretty much on the path of increasing investment in research and development, particularly in universities, in physical sciences and engineering.

They pretty much followed our recommendations. Where we all fell down, I believe, as a nation, not just the government but the states and everybody else, is we didn't take the concerted actions and make the big investments in K-12 science and math education for all kids, which was our A-number-one recommendation.

FLATOW: Lindsay Lowell, following his report in 2005, you co-authored a report called "Into the Eye of the Storm," published by the Urban Institute in 2007. And in your report, you investigated some of the conclusions of the report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," and you didn't find the shortage of high-tech workers President Obama was referring to or that that report was calling for. Why not?

LOWELL: Yeah, it's one thing to be for improvements in science education, which I think most of us are, especially in outreach to minorities. But if you just take a dispassionate view at the labor market, it's hard to see what's going on, as follows: We have at least three times as many people with a degree in STEM, or science and engineering, as in the actual labor force. It's a fairly small labor force, if you think about it, 5 million out of 150 million.

So that's who you're really preparing...

FLATOW: So you have a huge number of people who could take those jobs is what you're - you have an overabundance of qualified people.

LOWELL: Put it this way, too: The future is of concern. Now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected out through the end of this coming decade that we will need 190,000 new jobs every year, vacancies and turnover. At the same time, we graduate about 500,000 people in STEM each year. So it's hard for me to see the evidence of a shortage by measure of income and unemployment.

FLATOW: So why are all these students coming from abroad taking the jobs if we have the surplus of people over here who could do it?

LOWELL: Well, we certainly can use the international students who come here. We benefit quite a bit. That's a complicated question.

FLATOW: Let me ask Dr. Vest to react to that. Is he right? Are there more qualified students than there are jobs for them?

VEST: In my view, he's both right and wrong. But I want to begin by saying "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" did not make the statement that we have a shortage of scientists and engineers. It tried to guess - think about what we needed in the future.

And by the way, the unemployment rate of engineers within five years of graduation is two percent. Give me another field that looks that good. Twelve of the top 15 paying jobs fresh out of college are engineering disciplines. So even the market's telling us there's something there.

But I do agree with Lindsay that the diversity issue is big, and looking ahead, we've got, in my view, quality problem, quantity problem, diversity problem, immigration problem and, above all, inspiration and opportunity problem. We're going to need the kind of scientists and engineers who are the job creators of the future.

You know, I graduated from engineering school in 1963, and if you'd asked me - or if you'd asked an economic analyst where are all these engineers going to go - nobody would have said, well, most of them are going to go to the IT industry because there wasn't an IT industry. We invented it.

And so I think we have to look at the challenges the nation faces, the opportunity spaces, what we need to do to be competitive, and I think having a well-educated workforce, not just professional scientists and engineers but all kids with quantitative skills, computer literacy, some understanding of statistics and physical processes and systems, these are the things we're going to need to create and do jobs in the future.

FLATOW: Now Michael Kassner, the Navy has a unique problem when we talk about the shortage of scientists and engineers, as Dr. Vest says: They have to employ American scientists, right?

KASSNER: That's correct. For us, there's a security issue. For example - well, currently we employ about 35,000 STEM graduates, and to Dr. Vest's point, we expect over the next 10 years about half of those are going to be retirement eligible. And our concern is that the production of engineers over the past several years has been flat. So we're very worried that we won't, in the future, have enough graduates to fill our slots.

In addition, for example we employ a lot of engineers, many bachelor's degrees but also Ph.D.s, and what we find is that currently in engineering, about 70 percent of Ph.D. graduates are foreign-born. That's not a bad thing. I'm first-generation America. But many of these foreign-born students return to their homelands. Those economies become more robust.

And additionally, we would have a hard time hiring some of these because of security clearance issues.

FLATOW: So while they're good scientists and engineers, you can't hire them because they're not a native-born America.

KASSNER: Very often that's the case.

FLATOW: Charles Vest, do you address this, look at this in your report?

VEST: Yes, we did to some extent, particularly in the follow-on report, and the underlying premise is exactly this. We've had this wonderful ride for 30 years of getting the world's best and brightest kids to come here because this was the place. Let me give you an example: I have a friend who graduated from the IIT Madras, one of the great institutions in India, as an engineer maybe 30 years ago.

He had 250 people in his class; 200 of them came to the United States, and they're all still here. Last year, 14 percent came to the U.S. So these things are changing, and we can't forever assume that the best and brightest are going to come in and fill in these gaps in science and especially in engineering. But, you know, 25 percent of our existing workforce in engineering was foreign-born, and we're talking about over the entire spectrum, it's getting greater and greater.

This has been good, but we can't count on it forever. So we've got to give the opportunity and the inspiration to our own kids, as well.

FLATOW: Well, Lindsay, you would argue, if I put words in your mouth, that there are enough people here to take over a lot of these jobs that we might need.

LOWELL: Again, we benefit from having immigrants in the mix. But do we need ever more? It's questionable, in my part. In the first, place, the data, just looking at the domestic student body, that's foreign students born in the - you know, getting their education in the United States, that domestic supply is, at 500,000 a year, pretty healthy.

Do we benefit from additional foreign students? Sure. But the best and the brightest is a real tough metric. As a specialist in immigration, just throwing the gates open isn't going to get you what you want. So you have to have smart things in place to really make sure you're inducing people to come here not for a green card primarily but because they want to do really good at their discipline.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a break. When we come back, speaking of smart people, we're going to bring Anthonette Pena into the conversation, award-winning high-school teacher. Our number, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Also you can step up to the microphone here in our audience, and we'll be taking your questions.

We won't be - we're not taking them on the phone today. We're taking them in the audience. Keep it local, as they say. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the future of science education and filling in the jobs that we're going to be needing in the 21st century with my guests: Charles Vest; Michael Kassner; Lindsay Lowell; and Anthonette Pena, she's an eighth-grade science teacher at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C.

And in reading your biography, you have a special certification that most science teachers don't have. Tell us about that.

PENA: I'm a nationally board-certified teacher.

FLATOW: And what does that mean?

PENA: It means that I went through a rigorous process of turning in a portfolio, documenting student achievement over a course of time and submitting two videotapes of me teaching and having it analyzed.

FLATOW: And how many other percentage of schoolteachers around the country have that kind...?

PENA: Oh, I don't know the statistic. I didn't look...

FLATOW: Under 10 percent, 50 percent? Give me a ballpark.

PENA: I want to guess 15, 20 percent of the teachers across the U.S.

FLATOW: They can teach science like you can.

PENA: Allegedly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'm glad you said that and not me. So what makes you such a good teacher? Tell me about how you keep students interested? Because kids are born natural scientists, aren't they? They're curious about everything.

PENA: And they are. And in this day and age, they learn differently. They learn differently even from when I was in school. Traditional doesn't really work in eighth grade any more. Their attention span is so much shorter than my attention span was. They've got so many other distractions. So I like to keep things inquiry-based in my classroom, hands-on.

We've always - we're doing labs, and I like them to explain their thought process. And the big idea in my class is that they're going to walk out the door from eighth-grade science thinking like a scientist.

FLATOW: Right. Could you have gone into another job, being as smart as you are, as bright as you are, and gotten paid a lot more and not been a schoolteacher?

PENA: I'd like to think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And isn't that sort of the same situation, Charles and Lindsay and Michael, that engineers and scientists face when they're done with their degree, saying - it used to be, I could go to Wall Street, right, I could become an analyst and make five times what I'd be making as a scientist, at least. You know?

VEST: By the way, you can take that skill set and go to Wall Street and be successful. But, you know, every time we talk about K-12 education, and it's so great having Ms. Pena with us today. You know, if I were king, the first commandment I would issue is we're going to make teaching - teaching the most respected career in the United States.

This is where it all begins, and thank God that people are willing to come in for a little lower income and do things they believe deeply, and we need more.

FLATOW: And is there a way of doing that? I mean, we hear people keep saying we need to keep our scientists as scientists and engineers as engineers. Is it basically just that question of economics?

VEST: That's part of it. But by the way, Ira, and maybe not everybody agrees with me, I don't think there's a tragedy when a scientist or an engineer goes into another industry, goes into government service. And we're going to need more people doing jobs in the future we don't necessarily think of as science and engineering because they're going to have to understand systems, they're going to have to understand technology to face these big challenges we have of water, energy, environment, health care, security.

These all have a technical underlay that we need to both train all kids to take jobs, and also we're going to need real expertise in science and engineering in things other than just being in the research lab or teaching in the university.

FLATOW: And Anthonette, did you want to say something about how you can keep your kids interested and so that they actually finish a science degree? How do you keep them interested enough to go to college?

PENA: Sure. I think - I've always taught in an urban neighborhood, and I'm always looking for opportunities to make science real and bring it into the classroom. So I reach out, a lot, to the community and the professional organizations. I'm fortunate we have a lot of those in Washington, D.C., and bring speakers into my classroom.

I look for professional development opportunities all the time. That's how I spend my summers. Most recently, I did a zero-gravity flight that was funded by Northrop Grumman, and I got to show videotape of me floating around in zero gravity to my students. And I think just making it real to them and seeing their teacher float around and do hamster-wheels around the cabin of an airplane, just - it excites them.

And when they see me excited about science, it inspires them.

FLATOW: We have a video of you on our website, on that Vomit Comet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: As the astronauts call it, right, because everybody does.

PENA: I didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You have the right stuff.

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FLATOW: And everybody is welcome to come see a video of Anthonette tooling around there up in - not in space, but in zero-G. Let's go to the audience here, yeah.

TERRY: Hi, my name is Terry(ph), and I was wondering what could be done to encourage science education for the 80 percent, the average student, which I was until I went to college? Because what I had - I went to public schools where I was tracked. So I was not allowed to take physics or chemistry or biology. And that's still going on.

Luckily, I'm a person who likes to bang my head against the wall and became a space geek, although I'm an anthropologist, professionally. But so I think it's important for people to be engaged citizens of our country and the world to have a basic science education. So what can we do to reach the 80 percent, the average student?

FLATOW: Michael Kassner, do you have a comment on that, or...?

KASSNER: Yes, the Navy supports a variety of programs, and in fact, we consider an important area for interdiction is middle school. And the Navy, both rurally and in the inner city, has programs. One of them is called, for example, the Family Science Project. It sits in South Central L.A. It's in The Bronx in what I think is the poorest congressional district in the United States.

We know, for example, that about 30 percent of all high school graduates look like me, they're white males. But if you go to a bachelor's in engineering, for which the Navy has particular interest, about 70 percent. It goes from 30 to about 70 percent white males. And that concerns us a lot so - because (unintelligible) the Navy.

And what we've done is we started these programs in St. Louis, South Central L.A., The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Harlem, and these are family science projects where we ask that the parents come in, the middle school parents come because they're important in this equation.

We have the programs to be very hands-on. We have them be as interesting as we can. Sometimes in these programs, we have to make sure that there's food present because often the kids that come there are hungry. So we in the Navy believe that interdiction in middle school in poor neighborhoods is very, very important to stimulate interest in science.

And I agree with Chuck: It's not a bad thing if some people that have degrees in science don't go into science. Perhaps more of our senators and congressmen could have degrees in science, as well.

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KASSNER: But what we do think, it's important that everyone has a chance to go into science if they want.

FLATOW: And the Navy has the highest R&D of any of the armed forces. Is that correct?

KASSNER: In terms of basic research dollars, I would say the Navy is slightly higher than the rest. The Navy has always been very, very interested in basic research. You know, when ONR was founded back in 1946, I believe the right number is about 40 percent of all government-sponsored basic research came from the Navy.

Much of our technical superiority we have in the United States, right now, goes back to our smart forefathers at the Office of Naval Research. We've produced, funded 61 Nobel Prize winners in a wide range of discipline. Basic science is very important for both defense and our economic security.

FLATOW: And we see, more and more, that the military gets funding for projects that civilians could not get funding for: cutting-edge projects, because The Pentagon can say we need to do this, and they get - they have a higher, louder voice in Congress than somebody else will.

KASSNER: Well, I can't - I don't know about that, Ira.

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KASSNER: What I would say is that we've had some interesting projects. For example, many in the audience probably don't know this, but we did basic research in the area of the Zeeman effect, laser-cooling of atoms. And the reason we did research in this area is because the Navy has certain - has an interest in precision timekeeping.

The Navy has had custody of timekeeping for some time, I think centuries, actually. And we invest in basic research that underpin important Navy technologies. And one of them is timekeeping. And it turned out that our research in the Zeeman effect, laser-cooling of atoms, produced a lot of Nobel Prizes, but that wasn't why we did it.

It turned out we did it because we now have more accurate cesium and rubidium clocks than we've ever had. And you know what? That allowed us to have global positioning systems. Those GPS systems in your cars go right back to the Navy basic research that led to several Nobel Prizes in precision timekeeping.

That was very important for national defense, but it was also transferred to the civilian sector and created a lot of new jobs.

FLATOW: See, we can point to something besides Tang now as...

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FLATOW: Dr. Vest, did you want to say something?

VEST: Yeah, Ira, I don't want to drop this really important point about science and math and technology for all kids. It is so important. We're not just about creating the professional scientists and engineers. And there are a lot of new tools out there. As I know you're aware in a few weeks we're going to have here in the nation's capital the USA Science & Engineering Festival. And the main point of it is going to be to show young people and citizens how these fields are involved in meeting the great challenges of our time. I find that kids today are really interested in changing the world for the better, and we need to show how these fields play into that.

We need to have more discovery-based education, as Anthonette was saying. And finally, I just want to point out that there are a lot of great tools out there on the Web now. You know, MIT's OpenCourseWare and Lynx programs. And there are just lots of things you can get into and get inspired and get involved and not just because you want to be a professional but because you're curious.

FLATOW: OK. Let's see what this gentleman is curious about here in the audience.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm curious about the panel's opinion on advancing all STEM education versus picking winners, in a sense. That is STEM, we lump it all together but is really rather broad. Engineering is very different from chemistry and math and whatever. And I - my under - impression is that the need in those different industries - at least the present moment - probably differ quite a bit in terms of workforce. And so I'd just like to know whether you feel advancing all STEM education is still fundamentally the important goal, or we should be targeting certain areas?

FLATOW: Well, that's a good question because, Lindsay, you found in your report that there were some areas that were much more open to having more graduates in it, like the biological sciences, and there were shortages in other areas.

LOWELL: Well, petroleum engineering is an area that wages have been rising recently, and it seems to be bringing a lot more students into it. And that, to me, is part of the prior question as well. No, I don't think it'd be a good idea to target particular disciplines unless it was very clear it was needed, say, nursing in the United States. But the market really sends signals. We know that the cyclical flow of students to the engineering pipeline follows wages. You can talk about upping supply, but it's not going to really get you where you want unless you stimulate demand.

And I think the gentleman next to me had a lot of ideas on that front as well. My major message here is that it's a demand-driven system. That's what we've got. So the best way to get people in the disciplines that are needed is to have the wage lead the way.

FLATOW: Wage lead the way. Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm the mother of three boys, two middle schoolers who love science. And from my experience, I don't see a challenge engaging them at all in the science or exploring the world around them. The challenge I see with getting them into college and on to their Ph.D. is financial. The cost for their education is exponentially higher than mine was. And I'm going to be paying for mine for another 30 years. So I wonder if anybody on the panel had any suggestions or thoughts on the way that we're actually going to be able to pay for our kids to become educated enough?

FLATOW: Anthonette, you have anything to throw into that or sympathize with her?

PENA: Yeah. I would recommend that they stick with the STEM. There's so many scholarships available for students that are interested in STEM. And I really think that's where the funding is, and that's where the future is.

FLATOW: Charles, do we - does your recommendations say we've got to pump our money into our...

VEST: Well, this is - let's face it, folks. This is a very serious issue. The cost of education, particularly to middle class kids, is accelerating far too fast, and we have to learn in higher education how to be more cost efficient and effective. I believe we can do it, but we also have to return to the investments by the states in our public universities that gave so many people from the time of Abraham Lincoln forward great opportunities. Those investments have to go up. But in the meantime, we really have to learn whether or not we can take IT-based approaches to personalized learning, that use computers that have real cognitive science bases to how kids learn.

We have to learn if we can introduce those tools in a way that improve learning and decrease costs. So I take this very seriously. It's fodder for another two or three...

FLATOW: Yes. We could (unintelligible) well...

VEST: ...of your programs. But it is really important...

FLATOW: Yeah.

VEST: ...that we address it as a nation.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in Washington talking about science education. Let's go to the audience. I see Jim Gentile of RCSA is there. Happy Birthday to your organization, 100 years.

JIM GENTILE: Yeah. I'm not 100, Ira, the organization is.

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GENTILE: This is a great topic, and it's an important topic. And one thing that I think about with education that maybe I haven't heard the panelists talk about right now is education of the adult public that we have - individuals that may or may not have come through college, may or may not have come through high school, individuals that have worked their whole lives. And when we get issues that are really going to require votes, that's going to require sensitivity of understanding, climate change, for example, genomics.

Flying out here on a Delta Airlines flight, in their book, there was an advertisement that talked about genomic vitamins that could be ordered from a company. You gave a swab of your DNA through the whole sample of some sort. They would analyze that swab. They would develop a pool of vitamins for you and then sell it to you for a preposterous price over a period of time. How do we really have our public come to understand information versus disinformation in the - about science in the public stream. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you, Jim. And any reaction to that because we have about a couple - two minutes before we go to the break. We're going to have to have - as you said - and you made a good point about this - you don't have to know about science - you have to know about critical thinking. You don't - not everybody is going to be a scientist, but we're all going to be faced with these kinds of challenges. And we need to understand how to critically evaluate these things, don't we, Lindsay?

LOWELL: Yeah. It's an important point. One of the things that science teaches you is to have a skeptic mind about a lot of things. And I was looking for a dog that would be anti-allergenic, and it doesn't exist. But there's a fellow who'll sell it to you for 10,000 bucks.

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LOWELL: And I think that takes critical thinking, for sure.

FLATOW: Yeah. And...

PENA: That's...

FLATOW: Go ahead...

PENA: ...definitely something that I emphasize in my classroom. I always start the year off with having my students read an article about dihydrogen monoxide and how bad it is for the environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PENA: And, you know, later, I'd tell them dihydrogen monoxide is really H2O, and they feel kind of silly afterwards. And I say this is why you need to learn science. You need to be scientifically literate and question things around you and question the world around you.

FLATOW: Yeah. We're going to take a short break, come back and talk lots more with Charles Vest, Michael Kassner and Lindsay Lowell and Anthonette Pena. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. We're not taking calls this hour, but we want you to step up here in the audience. You can tweet us. We are looking at your tweets @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about science and engineering, and about the education it takes to become one and some of the shortfalls and things we might be able to do about creating more jobs in this country. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. You can also step up to the mic here in Washington, as many of you have. Let's go to this young man here in the aisle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'd like to ask about how usually some people have, for example, this gift in math or gift of being able to run impossibly fast speeds at one point or something like that.

FLATOW: They're either, you know, good in math or they're good in athletics so they can run and jump and do stuff like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So I was wondering how you'd find out if - because some people they won't - they just aren't exactly meant for the science in it. I mean, some people say, well, I've heard some grownups say, well, I barely grasped chemistry in school.

FLATOW: You're looking at one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

FLATOW: So, yeah, you know? Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So I was wondering how they'd find if someone has a talent for something or if...

FLATOW: Do you have a talent? Do you like science? Do you have talent for science? Or are you an athletic kid and you want to try to find out if you have any talent?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All I'm going to say is I'm definitely not talented in athletics, no siree.

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FLATOW: Do you like science?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah? Which is your favorite science? What do you like - what kind of science do you like? Earth science? Do you like...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I can't exactly tell you.

FLATOW: Do you like to look at the stars, the moon? You like to look at astronomy? Or what?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I like different things at different times. But I'm really wondering if people can - how they find if, oh, this person is going to be good at so and so?

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm going to help nurture this skill. Yeah.

FLATOW: All right. Well, let's - that's a good question because we have a school teacher here who maybe can help you out, right? Anthonette, can you...

PENA: I would recommend pursuing all your questions and curiosities and make it as general as possible, and you'll figure it out along the way as you get older. Some of us still haven't figured it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Just try everything.

PENA: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. You try all - you can go online and do these experiments online, you know, there's things on...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...the computer or try stuff. You'll figure it out as you get older. Thank you. Thank you for asking that question. Let's go to this side of the audience. Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Thank you. Much of our national discussion today seems so polarized regardless of the subject. And certainly when it comes to science, it feels like a good part of the discussion is anti-science - let us reject that which we thought we knew or we thought that there was a great basis or foundation for believing it to be that way. It seems to me that that must impact our schools K through 12 and people wanting to look at science if we have parents and elders who don't really have an interest. And I'm curious to know particularly from our middle school teacher whether you see that or whether because I'm visiting from Washington - I'm from a more rural area - whether that's something that concerns me that perhaps doesn't exist here, just curious. Thank you.

PENA: Yeah. Actually, I haven't experienced that living in D.C. or when I taught in South Florida either, so.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: But to follow-up, do you see that that would be a problem nationally when you look at the figures or the things that are being said by both Mr. Vest and Mr. Lowell.

FLATOW: Yeah.

PENA: Absolutely. I...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It concerns me greatly.

PENA: Definitely.

FLATOW: It seems that in a lot of cases - certainly in the political season - science has become something of an opinion. Well, that's your opinion. That science is an opinion as valid as any other opinion is to anybody else has. Michael, do you see that as happening in - because you're shaking your head so sort of...

KASSNER: Well, in the Navy, we take science objectively as possible. We're not political. We see science, we see STEM, we see technology as a national defense issue. We want to be sure that the United States when it enters a battle space has the best technology that our men and women in uniform know how to utilize that technology, and they're not at a disadvantage.

FLATOW: Are there jobs between - let me just throw this out. And the president talked about this in his speech, and others have talked about it. Jobs in between that are not college-level jobs but they're above high school-level jobs or technician jobs, Anthonette, that people - that we - we're - they're falling in a crack and they're not being filled. And there are a lot of - might be a lot of jobs there for them.

PENA: Yeah. I'm constantly encouraging my students, you know, to be scientifically literate and to be prepared to go to college if that's the path that they choose. But there's definitely space for - to bring back the technical schools to fill those kinds of jobs.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Lindsay, do you think that there's space there?

LOWELL: Sure. One of the thing that's happened with the evolution of the STEM labor force is precisely that technicians has been a growing sector. So much so that we've had to change the occupation dictionary. The Sloan Foundation runs a master's approach towards people in STEM, and I think there's a lot of reason to think about that mid level and improving the education. There's a lot of focus on doctorates that, I think, has issues. In the life sciences, certainly, it seems that we have a few too many. So that's a - the middle layers are right on, especially in places like information technology where it's a completely different labor force altogether. Maybe a fifth of those in IT don't even have any kind of STEM education.

FLATOW: And they're getting good salaries and good jobs, and that job pool is growing.

LOWELL: Yes.

FLATOW: Good. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We started off this discussion talking about Sputnik and Apollo. And Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson recently testified to Congress about the importance of manned space flight for - both for inspiring students and for driving the creation of new industries that we've seen over that period. And I grew up during Apollo, and I certainly, you know, would agree with this. Would - do you feel that this is manned space flight and going beyond Earth orbit is something that's important for future generations for creating new industries and creating new generations of scientists and engineers?

FLATOW: And he also said that they would not take any real new technology, that we could go to the moon. And if we wanted to, we, you know, we could still have those old - three - there were three rockets still laying on the ground or on the country that were never used in the Apollo program. Any reaction to that? Is it good to have another Sputnik generation like I was a child of the '60s, to motivate us? Do we need that?

VEST: Well, it certainly motivated me, and I have to admit, because of the time, place I grew up, I'm kind of a space cadet. So I hope humankind is going to continue voyaging into space in the future. At the same time, folks, we can't be driven by nostalgia. And each generation has to find what its great challenge was. Mine was going to the moon. That's a fact. And I think this next generation is facing all these issues around environment, health, water, some of the things we talked about earlier. And it's different because it's not a single thing. You know, we don't have a Sputnik moment. We've got about 10 of them out there that if humankind's going survive on the Earth, we have to address. And science and technology are not everything, obviously, but they're certain at the core of meeting these challenges. We're not wanting for challenges, but we adults and our leaders in both politics and business are not, in my view, doing enough to make that clear and to inspire people.

FLATOW: Lindsay Lowell?

LOWELL: Yeah. This is a really interesting question. Sputnik moment comes out a lot in this kind of discussion. And if you look at the data, it's kind of fascinating. If you look at the intensity and the nature of research versus R and D type of development expenditures, it was different at that time. If you look at the transition through the pathway from bachelors to masters to doctorates, it was much higher back then. But relative earnings in STEM back in '50 and '60 and even through '70 was higher than in law and some of these other kinds of professional fields. The point is, again, a Sputnik moment isn't something due just because it's a cultural thing. It's - it takes a lot of drive, a lot of money and a broad commitment. I was in Southern California, and I watched the aerospace industry go bust, and people lost jobs. So it's - again, it's a demand side.

FLATOW: And speaking of supply, and there was a statistics out this week that showed that the tipping point in undergraduates has now become women. There are more women in college than there are men in college. Does that bode well for more scientists and engineers? Will - are women going to be eager to go into science and engineering? And you keep hearing stories about harassment. And I'm watching my Twitter scans here, questions from women, a few of them coming, in how to prevent engineering managers from harassing employees of the - you know, in their profession? Are women going to be facing more harassment? When I was at engineering school, there was one woman in my whole class. And now, there are many more woman involved. Anthonette, what is the answer to that? Do you think that women are going to meet this challenge?

PENA: I hope so. And let's...

FLATOW: No way to tell.

PENA: No. I actually started off engineering myself and...

FLATOW: So what happened?

PENA: I started tutoring local high school students and decided I wanted to be a teacher instead so switched my major two years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PENA: So, yeah, there's definitely the lack of women in engineering and the science fields. And I hope to be a role model for my students and encourage them to pursue those careers because they can do it if they want to. I don't think they have enough role models.

FLATOW: They don't. Yeah. Lindsay, do you want to...

LOWELL: Just some simple stats. You know, women are very well represented in the life sciences. They're very well represented in the social sciences and in some of the technical occupations you were mentioning. The areas in which they don't do too well are physics and especially engineering.

FLATOW: Engineering. And math, where would they be in math? Any math?

LOWELL: Math...

FLATOW: We don't keep statistics that much about mathematicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOWELL: Look, this issue is so fundamental. This is the primary reason that we are not graduating the number of engineers that I think we need because over a 40- to 50-year period, the number of engineers we graduate has been almost unchanged. If you look at the bachelor's degrees overall, they've gone up like a rocket, and women bachelor's degrees in all fields have grown by 350 percent since the - about 1970. And the reason engineering didn't grow is it was for too long a time viewed as kind of a macho thing, which, by the way, was part of the Sputnik phenomenon whether we like to admit it or not. And we lost out.

So it is critically important that we get more women into these fields, physical science and engineering, and also minority kids. They're already 30 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old population, and they're 13 percent of these fields. We've got big challenges here.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, broadcasting from Grosvenor Auditorium in Washington. Let's see, we have a few minutes left. Let's see how many questions we can get in. Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Hi, I'm a mother of three kids: two in middle school, one in freshman high school. And I think it's great for your wanting to get kids enthusiastic about science, but the reality is some of the public funding for the schools is affecting that. For example, my daughter was really excited about doing dissections. They didn't have funding for it, so they did find some owl pellets in the storage cabinet. Some of them were plastic. That's what they got to dissect. For my older son who's in one of the magna programs here that's teaching chemistry or chemistry and physics in one year, they don't do labs. And I think that's the most exciting thing for him, so I'd like to have the panel to discuss that.

FLATOW: A quick answer because we have to move on. Anybody - the state of money, right, to buy lab equipment, things like that - everybody is shaking their head. They agree with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Local - in most case, it's a local issue, right? We talk about it as a national issue, but most money come locally from your local school board. Thank you for bringing that up. This is an ongoing topic. We'll talk lots more about it, but we've run out of time today. I want to thank my guests: Dr. Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, president emeritus of MIT, Dr. Michael Kassner, director of research at the Office of Naval Research, Dr. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown - thank you - and Anthonette Pena, she is an eighth grade science teacher at the Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington. Thank you all for being with us today.

LOWELL: Thank you, Ira.

PENA: Thank you.

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