Sunday, February 26, 2012

STEM and China

As Paul Borawski mentioned in his blog this month, it is critical for America to enhance our educational systems toward Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Our country became great in no small part because of the effort of the members of the STEM careers, particularly during and after World War II. Other than building the foundation of America's success during most of the 20th century STEM education is important because of the changing business environment in the world.

Many people might think that since manufacturing has been leaving the U.S. in the past 30 years that there is less need for people to study in the STEM fields. This is simply untrue. Yes, the bulk of manufacturing in the U.S. has since moved out of the country, first to Mexico and then to Asia, but the work that is needed to engineer and design the products that are manufactured still take place mainly in the U.S. I've visited the engineering centers of GM, Ford and Chrysler. They each have a campus or even small city dedicated to engineering the best automobiles in the world. The results of their work are manufactured in the U.S. and in many other countries. Apple is another example of a company that does its design work in the U.S. but manufactures its products elsewhere ("Designed by Apple in California Assembled in China").

Besides this need for engineering expertise at home, there is an even more pressing need to maintain our global competitiveness. The country where I live now has experienced an explosive growth in the past 30 years with all of the good and bad things that come with it. However, it is now changing from simply a manufacturing base to an engineering base. As the east coast of China becomes more expensive the actual manufacturing is moving further inland or even to cheaper countries (e.g. Vietnam). But like the U.S. before it, the engineering knowledge on the east coast (Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, etc.) is growing. I know because I work with Chinese engineers on a regular basis. I've worked with Japanese, German and American engineers also and I can tell you that Chinese engineers are already at the same level of expertise as engineers in those countries. The fact that STEM education is a core in the Chinese system (regardless of educational major or interest) is a main factor in their fast growth of engineering knowledge. Chinese kids routinely spend several hours on homework per day and much of it is mathematics. My girlfriend's daughter is eight years old and she does math using both Chinese and English story problems; pages and pages of them everyday. It is obvious to me that STEM education in Asia (not only China but Japan and Korea) is a driving force for the success of the region and it will continue to be such a force. North America can no longer afford to give STEM education short-shrift.

There needs to be a re-focus on STEM education at all levels but particularly at the elementary level. Students need to see STEM as interesting and safe at an early age, not be bombarded with it later. And a certain level of STEM (particularly math) should be required by all college students regardless of major. It is only by embracing STEM topics that the U.S. can retain some level of engineering and manufacturing prowess. In the past generation China has taken much of the manufacturing from the U.S., we can't allow the next generation of engineering to go the same way. A country that cannot engineer things cannot be successful.