We had some family visiting for the holidays, including a nephew with whom I had not talked for some time. He's a high school senior, a very bright young man who is applying to some good schools to continue his education. His goal: to be a lawyer. I asked him how he had done in science and math in high school, and he told me he had done very well, and that in fact math was his favorite subject. So I asked if he had ever considered a technical career in science or engineering. He said he had thought about it, but decided that law was what he would really like to do.
This connected with an article I happened to read in the December issue of Reader's Digest, "America's Brain Drain Crisis." Nothing totally new here, but it was a succinct summary of the issues and a sobering reminder of the fact that technical education in the United States is a highly critical problem that is receiving little real attention. For example, less than 6% of current high school seniors plans to pursue an engineering degree, down from 36% a decade ago (although that figure sounds high to me). And we are also reminded that American students do very poorly in testing on math and science compared to much of the rest of the world. It's not surprising that students are often not inspired by the teaching of these subjects in schools - 38% of math teachers and 28% of science teachers in grades 7-12 lack a college major or minor in their subject area. And of course we hear again and again that other nations are emphasizing technical subjects in their educational programs, especially in Asia. The article ends with some hopeful notes on what can be done to improve this situation, including recent recommendations to Congress from the National Academy of Science, summarized here.
I hope some of these recommendations are adopted soon. Under current conditions, I have to admit that my nephew's plan to pursue a law career makes a lot of personal sense - the outlook for lawyers in the US looks a lot more promising than that of scientists or engineers, alas. Maybe he'll change his mind, though it's not his job to solve such "big picture" problems for the nation. But I believe this is a job for those of us who are technical professionals and who are aware of and concerned about these problems. We need to contribute whatever we can to solving them.