Two news developments this week made it clear that Florida should take steps to grow more of its own scientists and engineers. Furthermore, that effort should be led by Florida’s Governor and Commissioner of Education.
First of all, the United State Senate, which is usually deeply divided, overwhelmingly passed a quarter-trillion-dollar bill to support scientific research and development in what the New York Times said is an effort to “bolster competitiveness against China”. Nineteen Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, voted for the bill.
Second, Governor DeSantis signed two bills that would, according to the Orlando Sentinel, “combat foreign influence in Florida’s universities from countries deemed hostile to the U.S., especially China”. Not enough young people from the United States are educated to become the world-class science and engineering students and professionals needed to maintain our nation’s leadership in these fields. So our nation imports many of its graduate students and professional scientists and engineers from other nations – and especially China.
Ironically, if the bill passed by the US Senate is approved by the House of Representatives and signed by President Biden, it may increase the need for more foreign students and scientists at American universities and corporations.
Florida does an especially poor job of educating scientists and engineers. Our state is ranked only 35th in the nation for the rate at which it produces bachelor’s degree graduates in science and engineering fields, according to the National Science Foundation.
Florida’s problem doesn’t originate at the university level. The state’s public high school students enroll in two of the high school subjects recommended by the American Society for Engineering Education – calculus and physics – at rates far below the national rates. During the 2020-21 school year, Florida students took calculus at only two-thirds the national rate and physics at only half the national rate. One out of every six large (more than 1,000 students) public high schools in the state did not even teach physics in the fall of 2020.
The scores that Florida’s high school students earn on the math section of the SAT college entrance exam can also provide some insights about where our state stands, although care must be taken in comparisons with other states. Florida is one of seven states in which 100% of the graduating high school class of 2020 took the SAT – the other such states being Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Michigan and Rhode Island. Since essentially all high school graduates in these seven states took the SAT, it is fair to compare their performance on the math SAT section. Among these seven states, Florida’s average SAT math score was the lowest.
Florida’s failure to provide its students with better opportunities to become scientists and engineers have consequences for the futures of the state’s students and families as well as for the state’s economy.
However, instead of focusing on improving the preparation of Florida’s K-12 students for economically durable careers in science and engineering, the Governor and Commissioner of Education are distracted by educational culture wars. While they cannot solve the state’s STEM education problems on their own, they can set a course for a state economy that is more dependent on the industries of the future like quantum computing (which is included in the package just approved by the US Senate) and less on Mickey Mouse. They can encourage the state’s school districts to provide information to parents about how to provide their own students the opportunity to choose science and engineering careers. They can encourage high school students to take courses in challenging subjects like physics instead of falsely stating that such subjects are irrelevant to 21st century life. They can lead changes in the state’s academic standards and testing program that encourage students to take challenging science and math subjects instead of discouraging them. This is especially true now that the Governor has decided to get involved in district-level school board elections.
Our nation is clearly at a technological inflection point, and we can hope that our leaders make a choice to be more globally competitive. But if the nation makes such a move, will Florida follow? Or be left behind?