Last week, I delivered a talk to the Nuclear Physics Town Meeting on Education and Innovation at Michigan State University. It was a return to my professional “home” – the nuclear physics community – after stints with the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education (the last two years as Chair) and the Executive Committee of the society’s Forum on Education during the last four years.
I returned to plead for the leadership of the nuclear physics community in fixing something that’s badly broken – the engineering and physical science pipeline. My talk documented what’s broken about the pipeline. Despite the growing reliance of the national economy on technological innovation, the production of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics is flat over the last ten years as a percentage of total bachelor degree grads. In fact, the absolute number of bachelors’ degrees in physics is about equal to what it was in 1970. Yes, you read that correctly – the absolute number of bachelors’ degrees in physics is about equal to what it was in 1970. The percentage of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics earned by women has been stuck at about 20% for a decade. The percentages of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics earned by African-Americans is drifting downward under 5%. The percentages of those degrees earned by Hispanics is not doing much better.
I argued using statistics from AP exams and physics course-taking in high school that these problems originate before college – somewhere in K-12. I showed a group of 8th graders from Orlando Science School who were inducted into the Future Physicists of Florida in October of 2013, and observed that if we could get that group intact – with its large percentages of women (well, girls since they were in 8th grade) and minority students – into college engineering and physics programs that we would finally make significant progress in solving the fields’ diversity issues. The target has to be middle school students, and we have to stay with these students while they are in high school.
I also pointed out that some nuclear physicists besides me are already engaged in similar efforts to reach out to middle and high school students, and argued for a nuclear physics community-wide effort to address the engineering and physical science pipeline.
Of course, if it had gone well I wouldn’t be writing this post.
Fragmented, one-off efforts of scattered individuals will not change the big picture. Weak self-congratulatory organizations like Change the Equation don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Nobody in the K-12 establishment really cares – people are too busy fighting about whether strong reading and math standards and assessments are good for their paychecks or egos.
So it’s up to the scientists and engineers themselves. Someday, some segment of the science and engineering community will step up and make a powerful, coherent effort to address the issues I raised in the talk.
But as of today, nobody has.