Consider this graph published Monday in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (with a hat tip to Motherboard). Panel A is the number of bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering (S/E) awarded in the US (blue) and China (red), and Panel B is the number of doctoral degrees. From a purely academic perspective, Panel B is more interesting because Chinese students used to flood American universities to earn doctorates. Obviously, many more are now staying home in China for graduate school.
But I’m going to focus on Panel A – the production of bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering. Yes, China has a much larger population than the US – 1.365 billion in China versus 318 million in the US. But in 2010 China produced 1.13 million bachelors’ degrees in S/E – about 830 new science and engineering degrees per million of population – while the corresponding number in the US was about 810 new S/E degrees per million of population. And obviously the gap between the two nations is widening quickly.
Two major factors are driving the Chinese explosion in S/E bachelor’s degree production, according to the article in the Proceedings. First, starting in 1998 China dramatically increased the size of its university system. Second, Chinese students are much more focused on S/E careers than American students are: 44% of new bachelors’ degrees awarded by Chinese universities are in S/E fields, while only 16% of bachelors’ degrees at American universities are.
Should we in Florida care? Yes, because the skills that engineering and science graduates have are critical in our increasingly brutal global economy. So what should we do? First, stop thinking of engineering and science careers as being only for the top few percent of especially mathematically gifted students. Chinese kids aren’t any smarter than our kids – it’s just that the Chinese kids are preparing better for college majors in engineering and science and making different career decisions. Florida should make it a high priority to prepare all of our students who take Algebra 1 in middle school – and that is more than a third of Florida’s students – for college majors in engineering and science by having them complete a math sequence that includes a year of calculus and a complete set of science courses (biology-chemistry-physics) by the time they graduate from high school. We can’t make students choose engineering or science majors, but we can make sure they’re ready to succeed if they do so.