STEM and Bright Futures: Can Florida’s public universities attract strong students? Steven Kurlander says they can’t, but…

In his Huffington Post piece arguing against a STEM emphasis for Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship program, Sun Sentinel columnist Steve Kurlander argues that the state’s public universities aren’t strong enough in math, science and engineering to attract strong students:

And let’s be realistic. The really bright kids in STEM vocations are going to attend Ivy League schools — and top-tier universities like MIT, Georgia Tech and Cal Tech — because Florida schools don’t provide the stellar credentials they seek to become the best in their fields.

Sure, lots of Florida’s best math, science and engineering majors go to schools like MIT, Caltech and the Ivy Leagues.  But some stay, too.  How do I know this?  The marquis national scholarship program for math, science and engineering is the Goldwater Scholars program.  Goldwater Scholarships are awarded to about 300 students per year in these disciplines.  In the last three years (2010-2012), students at Florida’s public universities, including FSU, UCF, UF, USF and New College earned sixteen Goldwater Scholarships.  That means that some really strong students passed up on the chance to go to MIT, Caltech and Harvard to come to our state’s public universities.

But it’s also true that Florida’s SUS institutions have missions that are very different from those of MIT, Caltech and Harvard.  The distribution of skills and abilities among math, science and engineering majors at FSU (for example) is quite a bit broader than it is at MIT.  It’s our job at FSU to provide the best possible learning opportunities so that as many of our students as possible can become strong professionals.  And that’s why we offer opportunities like the studio physics program.  Not everybody makes it – in the FSU Physics Department we typically graduate about half of the students who begin their undergraduate careers as physics majors.  But there are Florida public university students who became first-rate professionals in physical science and engineering fields who would not have made it if the state’s public university opportunities did not exist.

And it’s not just the students who benefit from the opportunities at FSU and other Florida publics.  If you added up all of the engineering and physical science students who graduate from the nation’s top 20 universities, you’d still come up way short of the demand for professionals in these fields.  Universities like FSU, UCF, UF and USF will continue to play critical roles in meeting the national need for physical scientists and engineers.

So, Mr. Kurlander, do some research.  Reasonable people can certainly disagree on the merits of tilting the Bright Futures program toward the STEM professions.  But those on both sides of the debate should argue on the basis of evidence instead of nostalgia.


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