Engineers and Scientists Evaluate U.S. Education

Engineers and Scientists Evaluate U.S. Education

Livebetter conducted an email survey asking 300 engineers, scientists and educators to grade U.S. primary, secondary and post-secondary schools in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). A total of 166 completed the survey, which launched August 15, 2010 and closed September 10, 2010. Participants also graded U.S. education in its diverse neighborhoods –inner city/ethnically based/lower income, rural/lower income, suburban/upper income and American Indian education on reservations. Additionally, the survey tested the respondents’ knowledge of U.S.-world rankings in science, math and reading. The final question was open-ended, asking for their thoughts and comments on education in America. Below are the cumulative and segmented results by demographics, along with selected, representative commentary by individual participants.

Primary SchoolsAllEngineersEducatorsScientistsMilitarySecondary SchoolsAllEngineersEducatorsScientistsMilitaryPost-Secondary SchoolsAllEngineersEducatorsScientistsMilitaryOverall Education GradesAllEngineersEducatorsScientistsMilitaryNeighborhood Education GradesAllEngineersEducatorsScientistsMilitaryUS-World Education RankingsAllEngineersEducatorsScientistsMilitary

Neighborhood Education GradesAllEngineersEducatorsScientistsMilitaryUS-World Education RankingsAllEngineersEducatorsScientistsMilitary

Primary Schools All Engineers Educators Scientists Military
Science Education GPA 1.89 2.1 1.33 2.0 2.0
Technology Education GPA 2.0 2.1 2.0 1.67 1.67
Math Education GPA 1.89 1.8 1.67 2.17 2.0
Secondary Schools All Engineers Educators Scientists Military
Science Education GPA 2.05 2.3 1.67 1.83 2.0
Technology Education GPA 2.11 2.3 2.0 2.0 1.83
Math Education GPA 2.0 2.4 1.5 1.5 1.83
Post-Secondary Schools All Engineers Educators Scientists Military
Science Education GPA 2.97 3.17 2.8 2.75 3.1
Technology Education GPA 2.74 2.95 2.6 2.5 2.1
Engineering Education GPA 3.24 3.5 3.0 2.75 3.4
Math Education GPA 2.91 3.15 3.0 2.5 2.9
Overall Education Grades All Engineers Educators Scientists Military
Primary Schools GPA 2.05 2.1 1.83 2.17 2.17
Secondary Schools GPA 2.11 2.44 1.67 1.83 2.0
Post-Secondary Schools GPA 2.72 2.7 2.83 2.6 2.4
U.S. Education GPA 1.75 1.64 1.8 2.0 1.79
Neighborhood Education Grades All Engineers Educators Scientists Military
Inner-City/Ethnic/Lower Income GPA 1.18 1.0 1.2 1.6 1.5
Rural/Lower Income GPA 1.47 1.56 1.2 1.4 1.67
Suburban/Upper Income GPA 2.53 2.39 2.83 2.67 2.42
Am Indian Reservations GPA 0.96 1.25 0.75 0.80 0.87
US-World Education Rankings All Engineers Educators Scientists Military
US is in Top 5 in math/science/reading 0 0 0 0 0
US is in Top 10 in math/science/reading 0 0 0 0 0
US is in Top 15 in math/science/reading 5% 0 0 16% 17%
US is in Top 20 in math/science/reading 16% 10% 16% 17% 33%
None of the Above (Correct Answer) 58% 60% 67% 50% 33%
No Idea Where US is Ranked 21% 30% 17% 17% 17%

Note: For more comments and ranking information, read this issue’s Professional Perspective, “America’s Grade of Shame,” by world-renowned scientist Darlene Ketten, PhD.

Education in America – Thoughts and Comments



Del Eulberg, Major General, US Air Force (Ret), PE, FDFC, FSAME

We are suffering from a lack of qualified engineers and scientists from our school systems. To be competitive in the global economy, we must find a way to instill a sense of adventure and excitement into the school environment that will show students of every age that science and engineering can be exciting and are important professions that our country needs. We also need to show the practical side of these professions so students see the subject matter application. One of the trends in our undergraduate and graduate level programs in science and engineering is the ever growing populations of foreign students. This is a tribute to our school systems; however, the majority of these graduates now choose to return to their home country. The result is we continue to lose critical skill-sets to remain competitive. Lastly, we must instill a sense of accountability across the board in our education system. There should not be an “easy” route to any degree. All degrees need to be challenging so young people will not be enticed to take the easy route. The education system in England, for example, requires extensive comprehension testing prior to graduation in every subject. This raises the bar across the board and restores the “value” of a college education.

Don Motanic
Technical Specialist (Forester), Intertribal Timber Council

High school has lost its “middle class” focus with students being placed into either remedial or advanced placement classes. The universities and business world are creating and promoting the general brain drain by creaming the top students while leaving the general public behind. The education system needs to hydrate STEM instead of draining it. STEM needs to have information flow as an integrated system with real-life examples to show the public how science affects their everyday life. For example, the human body consists of 60-75 percent water, and leaves can have the same percentage of water. Universities need to connect better with the public and get out into the communities, such as bringing classes onto reservations, rural areas and inner cities. The STEM information needs to flow, like water, so it’s simple and easy to digest. Some universities are creating colleges of the environment to adapt to the integrative nature that is needed to teach STEM, but high schools are far behind, which creates a lost connection between primary and secondary schools.

Additionally, the male dropout rate is 20 percent higher than the female dropout rate for American Indians, such as in the Portland, Oregon area (20 percent females vs. 40 percent males). Books like “Boys Adrift” by Lenard Sax should be highlighted to illustrate why the male high school dropout rate is climbing, especially for minorities.

Dick Pittenger, Rear Admiral, US Navy (Ret.)
Special Assistant for Strategic Planning
Directorate, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

When I look at military leaders today compared with the Cold War era, I see much more emphasis on management education (MBAs vs. MSs) and much less on science and engineering. They/we seem to be “tech-ing” up while “dumb-ing” down. This leads to decisions by PowerPoint rather than real understanding. There has to be a payoff to education. In the military that means good jobs and promotions. In the civilian world, it means the same, but more civilian jobs require higher degrees than do military jobs. I have to say that the foreign grad students I see are brighter and more motivated than U.S. students.

John Gordon, PhD
Pinchot Professor Emeritus of Forestry
& Environmental Studies, Yale University

All our schools, including universities, need work. More time needs to be spent learning, particularly learning to read, write and count. Discipline through longer school days and years, greater focus on completing university degrees in four years or less, and a major infusion of “vocational” education is needed. Most of all, we need to regain a sense of urgency about education at all levels, and find ways to provide incentives and support for excellent systems. The leadership should come from all sectors, but it should especially be the business of higher education institutions to lead in the improvement of all sectors.

Don Riley, Major General, US Army (Ret), PE, F. ASCE, D. AWRA, D. WRE
Senior Vice President, Dawson and Associates

Isaw our Federal government STEM-qualified men and women needs grow rapidly, but we saw limited numbers of eager and talented youth applying. When the economy depressed, recruiting improved –but poor economic conditions won’t last long, and STEM requirements will grow rapidly. The opportunities will be significant once the private sector unleashes its available capital for investment, and American STEM graduates will struggle mightily to keep up with the needs. Companies will likely be forced to seek talent overseas.



In discussions with educators, it is apparent that we have lost some STEM teaching talent in our secondary schools, and there is a tendency to teach to the standardized tests. The colleges with which I have been associated in one form or another have solid STEM programs, but with fewer U.S. citizen students as a percentage of the class. Lastly, we don’t seem to be exciting students early on for an interest in STEM fields.

I have witnessed some very successful, but relatively small-scale, programs work to get young students excited about careers in STEM fields: government workers in the schools as visiting teachers, the terrifically productive Society of American Military Engineers’ engineering camps, and the SMART (Schools, Mentoring, and Resource Team) Program. These need to be expanded dramatically.

I would suggest that all Federal, state and local agencies, as well as all businesses with STEM employees, volunteer to present hands-on classes in their local schools to get our youth away from their cell phones and social network sites for awhile, and get them excited about STEM. This is something we can do now.

Robert Massarelli, AICP
Senior Technologist for Master Planning, CH2MHILL

One of my favorite sayings is “Kids will live down to your highest expectations.” For several years, I’ve judged elementary and high school science fairs at the local, regional and state levels. Over time, I’ve watched the quality of projects steadily decline. I believe there are several reasons for this:

Science is not valued by our society. Science fairs get minimal media coverage, yet almost every day the press covers high school sports. Parents do not encourage student involvement with science. As an example, the local school board chairman is trying to implement a no homework policy over holidays due to parents’ complaints. Science projects were specifically cited.

Teachers are not given the resources or incentives to encourage students to be creative, which is essential for math and science. You must be inquisitive, curious and willing to question what you see to excel in the sciences. Teachers today are evaluated on students’ performance on standardized tests; the last thing they want is someone asking questions and wanting more details.

Students are often distracted by society. If you make millions being a stock broker, why would you spend your higher education dollars on a science career where you’ll be lucky to break even? TV crime scene investigation looks more interesting than most science careers.

Expectations have been lowered by society, parents and teachers, and students are living down to those expectations. For the U.S. to stay globally competitive, expectations need to be raised. I would start with the business community. A unified voice from America’s employers demanding higher expectations in creativity, organizational and communication skills, and research will set the bar higher for students. Business must send a clear message that personal financial success is possible if you bring such skills to the table.

Matt Vester, PhD
History Professor, West Virginia University

  • Low value placed on learning by our culture, as exhibited by things such as low teachers’ salaries
  • Pressures on children to spend time doing things other than studying; these are often pressures created by mass media/entertainment industries and include things such as playing video games, downloading music, spending time on-line, watching TV, etc.
  • A variety of factors (decrease in real salaries, excessive consumption, changed attitudes since the 1960s regarding the relationship between individual identity and professional careers, etc.) have resulted in changed family work patterns in which both parents work. I believe this has affected not only children’s study habits but also parents’ attitudes toward their children in general, which is making it difficult for them (both physically and psychologically) to create a disciplined home life.
  • Parents failing to place value on education; anti-intellectual attitudes among parents and children that only endeavors associated with eventual monetary pay-offs are worthwhile
  • Schools of education whose primary interest is in perpetuating their own existence rather than in insisting on rigorous standards for their own students and in insisting that their students enforce such rigorous standards for their primary and secondary school students

Mahnoosh Shoaei, PhD, PE
Senior Process Group Leader, CH2M Hill



Science and math education in U.S. primary schools are considerably behind other countries. Most math and science teachers have problems understanding the concepts themselves; thus, they teach math and science to kids like a cookbook. Kids memorize equations or relations. They don’t really understand the basics and how different topics are related. As a result, their retention is poor and everything is forgotten from semester to semester or year to year if they don’t practice a specific topic.

When kids get to secondary school, although the teachers are knowledgeable, the students have such a weak basis in math and science that the majority can’t succeed in those fields. Or, schools have to lower their standards in order for students to pass the basic requirements. In post-secondary schools, we are doing great because only students who are naturally good in math and science pursue these majors. So, the teachers don’t have to take any short-cuts and can really teach them. That is why the U.S. is excellent in post-secondary education, but is really behind all other developed countries in primary and secondary education.

The U.S. needs a revolution in the primary schools. We need to look at countries successful in math and science education to learn how and what to teach our children so they can compete with other countries. We are so afraid of kids failing math and science and their not being able to go to the higher grades that we make everything really simple and useless.

James A. Yoder, PhD Vice President for Academic Programs, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

U.S. education needs more science and technology in K-12, particularly in K-8, as well as better science training for K-8 teachers. It needs more homework, and it needs to stop grade inflation. America needs to find ways to stimulate excellent students who are stuck in poor schools. And, it needs to do a better job showing kids the importance of technology and science training as a pathway to an interesting career.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Vice Admiral, USN (Ret.), PE

  • The Nation has shifted its focus from being the technology/engineering World Leader. For example, we don’t make commercial ships, and we’ve lost our edge in state-of-the-art transportation systems.
  • Kids today have no desire to go into technical and “blue collar” fields, i.e., construction, ship building. Everyone wants to go to college and be the “white collar” boss in non-technical/non-engineering fields.
  • When we grew up (us older folks), we learned to perform basic maintenance on our cars, to fix our bicycle/skateboard, to make minor projects, and to do things with our hands and with others. We spent a lot of time outside with friends and playing sports (riding bikes/skateboards, kickball, volleyball, street baseball, football, etc). Courses in middle school included auto mechanics, woodworking shop, metal shop, electrical shop, etc. Today, kids spend their time on the computer, hanging out at malls, texting friends or playing video games in front of the TV. The middle/high schools no longer provide technical courses, and cars have become so complex that kids don’t have the ability to work on them like we used to.
  • Schools are attempting to cover too many subjects and to minimize classroom and homework time. We simply aren’t pushing our kids as hard as our competitors, i.e., China. Reading is not pushed hard enough at the very early years (K through 2nd/3rd grade) with phonics and the fundamentals.
  • Science and math are not pushed hard enough (K-12). Basic science, earth science, biology, chemistry, physiology, physics, etc. and basic math, geometry, algebra, trig and calculus should all be required prior to graduating high school.
  • America needs to pursue increased technical/engineering work and return itself as the World Leader. For example, people brag about “German engineering.” You never hear them brag about “American engineering.”

Rick Rubin, PE, AICP, LEED AP
Executive Vice President, RBF Consulting

In a society where more often than not both parents work, or there are a number of single parents who must work, the energy level to reinforce (at home) the importance of school has lessened. The experience that I have had, having three children go through school, is that many teachers have placed the burden of teaching on the family. Budget constraints are most often cited, but I believe there has also been a decline in teacher quality on the broader level. While parents must play an important role in their children’s education, the burden of primary educator is too heavy when the priority of putting a roof overhead and feeding a family are a challenge. In addition, the cutting of extra programs has severely impacted the child’s interest at school. If a great extracurricular activity is included, the child can build enthusiasm for school, and improvement will reveal itself in other areas as well. Programs such as music, drama and sports teach lessons that apply to mathematics, self confidence and teamwork.

Michael Joseph Dorsch
Graduate Research Assistant, West Virginia University Dept. of Political Science and National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC)



The U.S. school system’s dual and often misplaced role as not just educator but also as behavior police is the biggest underlying problem with the U.S. education system. Because the responsibility to educate children, teens and young adults in matters concerning social behavior has shifted from some parents to the shoulders of teachers and administrators, the available time to focus on knowledge education has diminished. Often times, the students who receive the most attention from teachers and administrators are those with behavior problems. As a result, students who have the ability and aptitude to excel are caught up in a race to the bottom where schools set standards to cater to well below the mean. Doesn’t it seem like it should be the other way around? Shouldn’t schools be encouraging students in a race to the top?

It’s time for schools to become equal opportunity educators and end the special allocation of resources to manage what parents ought to be doing at home. It’s time for schools to become institutions of learning and not daycare services. Programs need to be developed to foster development of not just those in the bottom brackets but to cultivate those in the top brackets as well –creating advanced classes to challenge those in the top, encouraging research and development to begin at the high school level and rewarding math and science teachers for best practices. Most importantly, the bar needs to be raised. It is not sufficient that expectations are set at a ‘C’ level. Goals and standards must aim for above the mean, and schools should be focusing on how to encourage as many students as possible to reach higher.

Ben Matthews, PE
Program Manager, Freese and Nichols & Society of American Military Engineers College Outreach Chair

China is currently producing 392,000 engineers per year. While that number is less than 1 percent of their total population, it’s still six times as many engineers as the United States produces each year. To make matters more challenging, of the 60,000 engineers educated in the U.S. annually, almost one-half return to their native countries.

For every engineer reading this article, what are you doing to make sure we have enough engineers to support our nation’s future infrastructure needs? Please take time throughout the school year to have a conversation with a student about engineering. It doesn’t matter if they’re in 3rd grade or in college. Tell them what you do, or show them how engineering and the built environment are all around them. By doing this, you’ll be mentoring future generations.

We need to consider that the median working age continues to rise while the retirement age is staying about the same. This results in our nation facing a critical risk of not having enough engineers to recapitalize our infrastructure in the next 50 years. Even though the economy is challenging right now, please invest the time and energy to help sustain our nation’s future engineering community.
U.S. Senator Edward E. Kaufman (D-DE), Duke Engineering ‘60
STEM jobs will be, and must be, the jobs of the future. Whether it is energy independence, global health, homeland security or infrastructure challenges, STEM professionals will be at the forefront of the most important issues of our time. Clearly, if we are to tackle these immense challenges, we can no longer wait to begin training our nation’s future engineers until after they leave the K-12 education pipeline. For too long, however, the majority of STEM education efforts have tended to focus on science and mathematics and rarely include technology or engineering.

As the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council reported in their seminal study, Engineering in K-12 Education, this “siloed” STEM teaching has thwarted efforts to engage students in real-world science and math applications. It has also impeded technological and scientific literacy, which are essential 21st century skills. Engineering is the ideal medium through which to teach these subjects. According to the report, K-12 engineering education may actually improve student learning and performance in science and math while increasing student technological literacy. It may also increase awareness of the engineering profession and boost student interest in pursuing a career in the field.

Fortunately, organizations such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education are working to “prime the pump” for the next generation of STEM professionals. This type of organizational support is critical to ensuring that students across the country have access to quality STEM opportunities in K-12 education and beyond. In my remaining time in the Senate, I will continue to encourage my colleagues in Washington to invest in STEM education. Such support is essential for our economic growth and recovery. It is the future of our workforce. It is our children’s and our grandchildren’s future.

Roscoe Bartlett, PhD
Congressman (MD, 6th District)

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Making STEM attractive for youth is a key to the United States maintaining our competitiveness in the 21st Century. A society gets more of what it values. To encourage more Americans to study STEM, our leaders and schools need to celebrate excellence in science, mathematics and engineering as much as we do athletics and entertainment.

We each must help by mentoring our youth. An amazing teacher when I was an undergraduate encouraged me to pursue science. I earned a Master’s and then a PhD in Human Physiology while teaching undergrads. My wife and I fund scholarships for an undergraduate majoring in a STEM field at each of the colleges in my district. When I traveled to Antarctica for a Congressional delegation/National Science Foundation research review, I organized conference call lessons with elementary science students. I sponsor interns majoring in STEM fields.