September 20, 2014
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The Way We See It
It's not rocket science

Is it a stereotype that the Chinese and Indians are better at math than Americans? The questions that revolve around race and gender and their effect on problem solving have been the source of much debate. But regardless of the conclusion, one thing is true: a greater number of degrees with a mathematical basis are being awarded in China than here in the U.S.

According to various studies, the numbers of Chinese graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering range from 350,000 to upwards of 500,000 a year. Even the lowball estimate exceeds the amount of U.S. graduates: between 135,000 and 150,000. And a hefty percentage of that number includes non-U.S. citizens.

And what about Ph.D.’s? In China they hand out about 10,000 a year. Here in the U.S.? Only 8,000.

So what does this mean? Why do we have less students graduating from engineering programs, or other areas of study that focus on math and science?

Some local teachers aired their opinions at the Science Fair this weekend.

Jason Dwyer, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, said it’s about encouraging inquisitiveness. He said the focus doesn’t have to be solely scientific, but engaging in all topics. As long as students are interested in the world around them, they begin to question and look for answers, which is a major part of scientific study.

Others think we need to push students harder. Mark Fontaine, a teacher at the inner city TIMES² Academy in Providence, said that students will achieve less if the pressure is loosened. By focusing more time and energy into pushing students to work harder and do better, we can create a population of excellent (not just adequate) students.

And what happens if we don’t?

We’re seeing it now. Major companies are flying in potential hires from China. Homegrown engineers are losing out to foreign competition. It doesn’t just mean bad things for the individuals, but it could mean a lack of technological development for our country as a whole.

Congressman James Langevin said he fears we’re “being out-paced by China.” He thinks students’ interests fizzle out because of the way they’re taught. He thinks incorporating a more hands-on, real-world approach to subject matter is the key.

And the science fair is a perfect example of that theory in action. Students took interests in a variety of things: hair dying, glow-in-the-dark chemicals, electric currents and more. Studying something that engaged them – and not just something that taught them a theory, a lesson or a handful of facts – resulted in innovative thought and true enthusiasm.

That’s the type of thing there needs to be more of. If that passion for learning can carry through college and into the real world, we won’t have to crunch numbers to decide which country has the most engineers.


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