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STEM Indicators

May 30, 2014

In my scientific career, I've met many chemists, physicists, electrical engineers, and fellow materials scientists. As you would expect, these were from many different countries, and all were quite capable. Most, however, were men, which is not unexpected in the physical sciences. Women numbered less than 10% of my undergraduate physics class, and there were none in my materials science graduate program. If I practiced in the life sciences, social sciences, or psychological sciences, there would have been quite a few more women.

If I restrict my view to just the subset of American scientists I have known ("American" meaning they had attended elementary school, high school, and college in the US) there is one unusual feature. Some regions of the US were rarely represented. I thought this might have been an effect of the small population of some states, but recently released data from the National Science Foundation and the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) shows that the science and mathematics education of students in some states is seriously deficient.[1-8]

As I wrote earlier this year (2014 Science and Engineering Indicators, February 17, 2014), the most recent National Science Board survey of US science, "Science and Engineering Indicators 2014," showed that the US still leads the world in science and technology areas, but its lead is shrinking.[3-4] One reason for this, of course, is that the rest of the world has improved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) areas. However, another reason might be that US education is deficient in these areas.

Figure caption

Just another player.

The percentage contribution to the growth of worldwide research and development expenditures for the period 2001-2011.

(Graph by the author using Gnumeric, from data in Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, Chapter 4). [3)]

A little more than two years ago, I wrote an article in this blog about the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.[5] As I wrote in that article (Science Education, January 27, 2011), this assessment showed that few students have the skills required for science and technology careers. Just 34% of fourth-graders, 30% of eighth-graders, and 21% of twelfth-graders were deemed "proficient."[5] Seventy-two percent of fourth-graders, 63% of eighth-graders, and 60% of twelfth-graders had a basic level of scientific knowledge. Students in the Deep South did worse than those in the Northern and Northeastern states.[5]

Five major regions of the US

One logical division of the United States into regions. Often, a finer division is made; thus, the "Deep South" encompasses the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. It's best to define your regions, since there's considerable variation in what states belong where. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

The NSF's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has just published a state data tool that supplements its 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators.[1-2] This online, interactive tool allows a more detailed look at education, science, and research in each state. There are fifty-nine indicators of state performance in education, research and development investment, the scientific workforce, and high-tech business, allowing a look at twenty year trends. The states vary widely for most indicators.[2]

• Vermont had 39 science and engineering bachelor's degrees awarded per thousand individuals of normal college age (18-24), while Alaska had just 9.
•  Virginia had 7.6% of its population employed in science and engineering occupations, while Mississippi had just 2.2%.
•  Eight percent of New Mexico's gross domestic product (GDP) was spent on research and development, while just 0.3% was spent by Wyoming.

Dan Arvizu, chairman of the National Science Board, said that this NSF tool would be important to policy makers in state governments.
"If you're lagging behind neighboring states or the rest of the nation, it may inform your assessment of the quality of your educational system or workforce, and what you may need to do to enhance your economic position and competitiveness."[2]
Looking at just the math scores, the US ranked twenty-seventh for countries in another assessment funded by the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG).[6] The top ten are listed below.[6-8]

1. South Korea6. Estonia
2. Japan7. Canada
3. Switzerland8. Belgium
4. Netherlands9. Germany
5. Finland10. Poland

The highest ranking state in mathematics was Massachusetts, which ranked as high as Estonia (#6). My own state of New Jersey ranked as high as Poland (#10), while its neighboring states of Pennsylvania and New York ranked as high as Norway (#22) and Hungary (#30), respectively. In fact, a majority of US states ranked with Hungary. The lowest ranking states in mathematics, Louisiana, West Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi, ranked with Turkey (#32).

Of course, all this data is only important is there's someone listening. The BBC article on the mathematics assessment is entitled, "US 'in denial' over poor maths standards."[8] As explained in the BBC article, US citizens are under the impression that students in poorer, urban school districts are dragging down the test scores, while the suburban students are doing just fine.[8]

The assessment shows that even the privileged students with highly-educated parents are lagging behind students in other countries. As the PEPG report authors, Eric A. Hanushek and Paul E. Peterson of Stanford University (Stanford, California), and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, write,
"Lacking good information, it has been easy even for sophisticated Americans to be seduced by apologists who would have the public believe the problems are simply those of poor kids in central city schools. Our results point in quite the opposite direction. We find that the international rankings of the United States and the individual states are not much different for students from advantaged backgrounds than for those from disadvantaged ones. Although a higher proportion of U.S. students from better-educated families are proficient, that is equally true for similarly situated students in other countries. Compared to their counterparts abroad, however, U.S. students from advantaged homes lag severely behind."[7]
One interesting fact is that the BBC article about these scores was in the "Business" section.[8] It's no surprise to US workers in STEM occupations that its country's investment in research and development is shrinking. The following graph, from the 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators, shows that quite clearly.[3]

Figure caption

Average annual growth in domestic research and development expenditures worldwide for the period 2001-2011. (Graph by the author using Gnumeric, from data in Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, Chapter 4)[3)]


  1. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 State Data Tool, National Science Board.
  2. New data show how states are doing in science, National Science Foundation Press Release 14-068, May 15, 2014.
  3. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, National Science Board.
  4. US lead in science and technology shrinking, National Science Foundation Press Release No. 14-022, February 6, 2014.
  5. National Center for Education Statistics, "The Nation's Report Card: Science 2009 (NCES 2011-451)," Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., 2011. Complete Report, PDF File.
  6. Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, "Not Just the Problems of Other People's Children: U.S. Student Performance in Global Perspective," Program on Education Policy and Governance, PEPG Report No.: 14-01, May 2014 (4.5 MB PDF file).
  7. Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, "U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests - It's not just about kids in poor neighborhoods," Education Next, vol. 14, no. 4 (Fall, 2014).
  8. Sean Coughlan, "US 'in denial' over poor maths standards," BBC News, May 20, 2014.

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