Technological Labor Shortage
Requires Re-Engineering Educational Systems
By Oscar H. Criner

By now we should all know that there is an extreme shortage or scientists and engineers. Computer and information scientists are needed most as the computer is embedded more deeply in our social and economic infrastructure. This shortage is the result of a systemic failure in the national educational system. It has little to do with the perception of students about scientists and engineering as geeks and nerds. It has a great deal to do with what science and mathematics are taught, how they are taught, teacher's perceptions of who can learn it, and teacher's abilities to teach it.

I am a forth generation teacher in Texas. There is a strong tradition of educational accomplishment in our family, both formal and informal. Until my children, we were all products of the public schools. What happened?

I have observed the decline of the educational system from the trenches, both personally and professionally. I have taught in colleges for over twenty-five years. I receive the output of the primary and secondary educational system; I get its product. I am one of its customers and I am extremely dissatisfied with the product. Nevertheless, I do not blame my dissatisfaction on the product. Children can be molded to see any view teachers want them to see. Therefore, if children do not like science and mathematics, it is because teachers do not like science and mathematics or teachers do not want children to like science and mathematics. Therein lies a major problem of the educational system: teacher's perception of student's abilities and teacher's perception of the difficulties or complexities of the subjects

The need for scientific and technological personnel is growing faster than the educational system can produce them. This situation was known for over two decades. The decline in mathematics, science, and engineering students has been observed since the early 1970s and it became critical around 1985. The New York Times of July 19,1987 reported that there "…could be a shortfall of roughly 700,000 science and engineering undergraduates over 25 years…It is doubtful that even a continued torrent of foreigners could fill a gap of that size."

I was in college in Washington, DC when USSR launched Sputnik. I watched the panic in Congress and the passage of the National Defense Education Act and other government programs aimed at increasing the number of scientist and engineers and "jump-starting" our stalled missile and space programs. Cold war politics had a strong affect on the educational system emphasizing science and mathematics over everything else. Unfortunately, these educational programs seem to me now to have had the opposite effect in the long term. A well known characteristic of complex systems is that they can behave counter-intuitively to stimuli in the long term. While there may have been a short-term increase for about ten years, the number of science and engineering graduates has been declining steadily since the 1970s. I believe that the barriers to scientific and engineering education lie embedded in the educational process all along the way from end to end.

The productivity of the process of education forces you to conclude that the system cannot possibly produce the needed people. We must change the system both structurally and philosophically. We need upwards of 350,000 computer and information scientist today-now, immediately. The number grows each year. Suppose we assume that all of the natural science graduates from every college in the country chose to be a computer or information scientist. That is not likely. Even if the new immigration law proposals pass and we can import 100,000 knowledge workers, there will still be a significant shortfall on probably more then 250,000.

This problem is much larger and more complex than it appears on the surface. The solution will require a much more thorough and radical process re-engineering of the educational system than is being considered today. A "root-cause" analysis would probably show that there are significant issues in the philosophy of education.

The philosophical question concerns what we teach to young children and how we believe that people learn. I am very conservative on the matter of what should be taught and how it should be taught. I believe that all children should be taught the same curriculum and that there should be no distinction between a vocational and an academic curriculum. With the current technology the concepts of what is vocational and what is academic have become blurred. Everybody should have college preparation material, because, in fact, everybody attempts to go to college. It is extremely difficult to predict where a person will end up in a career so everyone should have equal access to all careers. This is possible if we abandon the special purpose magnet schools in favor of all schools teaching a good standard curriculum.

Children should learn to read, write, do arithmetic, simple science, and solve progressively more complex problems through the eighth grade. Algebra and abstract mathematics should not be introduced until high school or the ninth or tenth grade. College level mathematics and science courses should not be taught in high school. Pushing advanced material down into lower grades reduces the time students have to master the fundamental material. High school math and science teachers like to feel that they are teaching advanced subjects, but the result is that because students have not had enough time in the fundamental subjects, they fail to be firmly grounded in the basics. This adversely affects the pipeline of potential science and mathematics students at the college level.

Learning takes time and a long time. Ideas, concepts, and facts must be seen repetitively and in a variety of ways for years before they are firmly held by students. Learning to solve problems is done by having practiced lots of examples and making associations. There is no need to rush students through this fundamental material in order to get to advanced material earlier. There will be ample time for advanced material later. I believe that students should be able to perform complex arithmetic operations without electronic assistance. Computational skills should be emphasized through the eighth grade. I do not mean to simply ban pocket calculators, I mean they should be taught old fashioned manual computation skills and arithmetic problem solving.

High school graduates should also be able to read and write very well. Students I get from the British style schools write exceptionally well. The computer and information science business is an extremely literate business. The ability to write well, reason well, and explain complex processes in the written word is more important than advanced mathematical or programming skills. Bell Laboratories constructed one of the first word processors to help engineers produce documents that were well written and understandable.

College calculus and physics courses also have an oppressive tradition that discourages students from entering the scientific professions. At one time, college physics and calculus were the so-called gatekeeper courses for engineering schools and were used to limit the enrollment. Ironically, this policy may have been the cause of the enrollment problem in physics. Enrollment is so low in physics courses today that many institutions are having trouble keeping a physics degree program. Clearly, this elitist attitude about science and engineering has also helped to diminish the number of scientists and engineers. Just as we know that abused children are likely to abuse their children; teachers who jumped the hurdle of physics and calculus impose the same techniques on their students. I have taught both physics and calculus and they do not have to be exclusionary courses or made so difficult that they destroy a student's ambition. However, they are strong barriers to students seeking careers in science and engineering.

I try to include students into my view of science, but it is difficult when they don't have the high school fundamentals down absolutely cold. I want to talk about three-dimensional objects, but they didn't have a high school course in solid geometry. They don't know what a dodecahedron is and forget a Bucket Ball. I want to talk about logic and proofs, but they only had a course in informal geometry. They may have never seen a proof or heard about deductive reasoning, because some advisor did not think they could pass the real geometry course. The reformers have invented courses in informal geometry. That is ridiculous. What is geometry without proof? I want to talk about formal languages, but they took only the minimal required English. Their grammar is weak, and they cannot diagram a sentence.

High school advisement is notoriously confused about the needs for a career in science and engineering. I get students who are interested in science, mathematics, and engineering, but whose preparation is so weak they are ashamed. I have had students who want to study engineering, but have not had a high school course in physics, solid geometry, or trigonometry. Clearly, the student's ambition was not known, or recognized by the advisors, or they thought that the students could not do the work, or the school did not offer the courses. There are many students who want to study science and mathematics, but who are advised away in the public schools before their capabilities are fully known.

There are some students who learn very quickly and have excellent memory; they appear to be the high achievers. Other students learn more slowly, but if the students are healthy and have no physical health problems. They should all get to the same knowledge level in time. Some of the slower ones may be more creative than the faster ones. It is extremely difficult to assess who can do science and mathematics and who cannot. All students should be specifically directed to study the same levels of English, science, and mathematics in the schools and they must not be prematurely advised away or discouraged. Simply attempting to interest students in science and mathematics will not solve the problem. Science and mathematics must be as integral to education and reading and writing. In time, we may be able to recreate a substantial pipeline of potential scientist and engineers.

Oscar H. Criner, Ph.D. is a professor in mathematics and computer science at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas.

For correspondence:
Oscar H. Criner
Nabrit Science Center
Texas Southern University
Houston, TX 77004
(713) 313-7923 (Voice)
(713) 313-7582 (Fax)