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Engineering isn't on America's priority list

The following article about student interest -- or lack thereof -- in engineering and technical education (which includes the natural sciences) was followed by a spirited discussion that lays the responsibility for the decline in engineering and technical career interest directly on society and the businesses that say students aren't prepared. With little job stability, social mission to find soutions to big problems such as the energy crisis, students are directed to the popular careers such as health care and law. With that said, here's the engineering story:

U.S. students are losing interest in studying engineering and science--a trend we can no longer afford to ignore, warns the CEO of Cisco Systems.

According to John Chambers, Cisco CEO, we should fix our educational system from the ground up. He is frank about what we're risking by not placing enough emphasis on engineering and science--our competitive advantage. "We're losing the battle," he claims. Chambers looks to a 2004 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study for proof. It found that American 15-year-olds place only 24th in math and 18th in science among 38 industrialized countries.

To rebuild our intellectual capital, we have to overhaul our entire educational system, from kindergarten through college and beyond, says Chambers. Get students--girls and boys equallly --interested in engineering and other technical disciplines early on. He suggests faster-paced teaching with a renewed and more rigorous focus on math and science. He also encourages recruiting more top-caliber teachers, saying that he would like the "top 25% of people in the country thinking about teaching, and not just the people who have a good heart."

His recommendations reflect those of TechNet, a national coalition of high-tech executives, in which he is a member. Last month, the group released the TechNet Innovation Initiative and Innovation Policy Agenda, which supports full funding of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and greater funding for math and science in schools around the country and in research programs.

Chambers points out that in China and India--each with a population topping one billion--educational programs are geared toward sharpening the math and science skills of their brightest students. Currently, China cranks out five engineering graduates for every new one in the United States, he says. "In China and India, they clearly understand that if they get the engineers, then they get the managers, then they get the companies, then they get the innovation," he tells Kirkpatrick. His own company, which recognizes how absolutely critical engineers are, "goes to where the startups are," including local spots as well as overseas locations such as Shanghai and Bangalore. "How our company grows depends on our engineers," he says, adding that each engineering job at Cisco generates two more jobs in the company and two or three additional jobs in the local economy.

To beef up engineering education, Cisco--along with other tech companies such as Sun, Adobe and Hewlett-Packard--have developed web-based technical programs, called Network Academies, that are available to high schools, colleges, universities and community-based organizations. In particular, Cisco provides equipment for these programs, of which there are more than 4,000 in the U.S. and some 10,000 around the world.

But bolstering engineering education is only one part of the solution. Some countries are also rapidly building up their infrastructures. For instance, China is setting up an advanced broadband infrastructure and establishing a regulatory environment that is more favorable toward innovation than its U.S. counterpart. Despite the fact the country's edge is eroding, Chambers remains upbeat. "We control our destiny, because the U.S. has a huge advantage of great universities, and because once we make up our mind to do something, we do it well."

Cisco CEO on U.S. Education: 'We're Losing the Battle'
David Kirkpatrick
Fortune, March 30, 2005,15704,1043600,00.html

In the innovation world, advantages are often upset when they become bloated with quality features that are expensive to maintain. We must ask the question, are our great universities facing disruptive innovation from other forms of education...and other countries. The opportunity exists to provide more targeted education, for significantly less cost, to the host of people who can't afford the top of the line educations being offered, and who want more specific tools for specific needs.

With the proliferation of online education, the Worldwide Web, and broadcast possibilities -- matched with business' frustration with difficult employee recruitment -- maybe education is ripe for innovative upset.