Science Aptitude & the Future of U.S. IT
By Tony Kontzer
Forgive me for being alarmist, but the news last week that science aptitude is in the toilet among American elementary, middle and high school students doesn't bode well for the nation's long-term economic recovery.
The last time I checked, science pretty much drives the American economy. (Along with handling damage control for Charlie Sheen.)
Let's be honest. English is nice, and mastery of it can occasionally lead to a cottage industry, but America's highways are hardly littered with the remains of Elizabethan Poetry majors who invented world-changing devices or generated thousands of jobs. Likewise, history is critical to the learning process, and someone with a doctorate in modern political theory may play a key role in helping the U.S. negotiate the volatile situation in Egypt. But I seriously question that same person's ability to build the next barrier-busting economic engine.
But, scientists? In their various incarnations, they're a huge force in the 21st century economy. Without them, high-impact innovations such as Google or Facebook or Salesforce.com wouldn't exist. Without the presence of scientists in research labs everywhere, working on everything from formulae to side effects, many of the world's best known brands would come to a standstill.
And in the world of IT, computer scientists are critical to achieving any kind of sustained value. They not only drive the research at universities that so often leads to computing innovations; computer scientists also found the companies that commercialize those innovations, perfect the products those innovations lead to, and continue molding those products into increasingly useful business tools.
On the other side of that coin, the most successful American companies employ computer scientists in the hope that they'll understand all of those tools, and that they'll deploy and manage them in a way that will extract the most value from them.
So when a report such as the so-called Nation's Report Card indicates that fewer than one-fourth of high school seniors -- and about one-third of fourth- and eighth graders -- are performing at a proficient level in science, it's reasonable for people with a vested interest in the nation's students (and their role in our future economy) to express some serious concerns.
"The next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, and engineers," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement following the release of the Nation's Report Card.
It's an ominous assessment, and one that holds a few implications for IT management at American companies:
- Recruiting for IT talent could become even more difficult in coming years, what with fewer raw scientific minds to choose from, thereby making it all the more important that you hold on to the best talent you have now;
- Making investments in closing this science gap -- via donations or educational outreach, for instance -- could pay off in a big way down the line; and
- Establishing your company as an industry IT leader in the coming years could provide a significant competitive advantage over rivals that take a business-as-usual approach.