By Beth Dickey
September 1, 2004The Defense Department reaches out to students to head off a void of U.S. scientists and engineers.
The Defense Department needs more scientists and engineers with one thing in common: U.S. citizenship.
Demand is high for specialists to carry out Defense technology initiatives in hypersonic flight, space access, power generation, energy storage, surveillance systems and information networking. Many jobs in these fields require security clearances only given to citizens. But at U.S. colleges and universities, the supply of qualified computer, electrical and mechanical engineering specialists is low.
"[We] need to address an uncertain world in the 21st century with a higher rate of change of technology . . . bringing forth the technical talent to enable us to be on the leading edge," says the director of research and engineering at the Pentagon. Ronald Sega, who oversees all science and technology programs for the military, says the need for U.S. citizens in Defense work is an "inescapable fact." With a retirement bubble poised to burst in the next few years, Sega says, the downturn in America's science and engineering workforce has become "an issue of national security."
Less than half of all the government's scientists and engineers work for the Defense Department. At Defense, engineers outnumbered scientists by about 2-to-1 in 2002. The majority were mechanical, industrial, electrical or computer specialists.
Citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, the military anticipates increasing demand for scientists and engineers. Through 2010, the greatest need will be for computer hardware and software engineers-35 percent and 36 percent growth, respectively. The demand for chemists, materials scientists, and electronics, aerospace and mechanical engineers will increase as much as 20 percent.
But the number of native-born science and engineering graduates will not rise, according to "The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential," a 2003 report from the governing board of the National Science Foundation. It calls the situation "troubling" in a January 2004 summary of its biennial "Science and Engineering Indicators." National Science Board executive officer Michael Crosby says, "The data trends . . . give strong concern . . . that the United States needs to address various issues surrounding the next generation of scientists and engineers."
More students-American or other- wise-are graduating from U.S. universities. But interest in college-level science and engineering studies is waning. The military points to a decline among citizens and permanent resident immigrants, while NSF notes statistics showing that women and minorities are particularly under-represented. Citing NSF data, the military says the number of students earning bachelor's degrees in Defense-related science and engineering did not keep pace with the number of bachelor's degrees awarded overall between 1994 and 2001. Graduate and post-graduate enrollment slowed, too. During the same period, fewer than half the U.S. post-graduate scientists and engineers were citizens. The total of Ph.D. degrees increased, but the number of U.S. citizens earning them decreased.
"Even if action is taken today to change these trends, the reversal is 10 to 20 years away," the National Science Board observes. Students entering the workforce with advanced degrees in 2004 decided to take the necessary courses as long as 14 years ago, when they were in middle school.
That, Sega says, is why the military wants to capture youngsters' attention early with educational outreach. Three high-profile programs target children at elementary, middle and secondary school levels.
Designed for at-risk kids of all ages, the Defense Department's Starbase offers hands-on experiences designed to motivate learning. It brings students in kindergarten through 12th grade onto military bases nationwide for a week of instruction. Math and science studies feature simulations and experiments in aviation and space-related fields. Founded at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan in 1990 and funded by the government since 1993, Starbase has 45 academies in 28 states.
The Army's e-cybermission is a Web-based adventure for grades six through nine. Students team up to identify a community problem, formulate a hypothesis, and test their theory through research and experiments. Army scientists, engineers, soldiers and civilians coach the teams online. Science, math and technology applications account for 40 percent of the score. Winners earn $500,000 in prizes, from T-shirts to savings bonds.
Thirteen U.S. bases overseas have joined more than 500 schools in 14 states in adopting Northwestern University's inquiry-based science and technology curriculum for students in grades nine through 12. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Materials World Modules program employs familiar materials such as metals, ceramics and plastics in the study of chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics. Students learn laboratory and communication skills, and how to apply their knowledge to create designs or products.
Service programs have extended Defense Department education initiatives to the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the department also is exploring internships and modeling and simulation-based mathematics. "We're complementing . . . other activities and initiatives across the federal government," Sega says.
By Beth Dickey
September 1, 2004