The Missing Ingredient in the STEM Education Debate

Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and Harvard/Duke professor Vivek Wadwha recently debated on TechCrunch whether there is a crisis in U.S. science and technology education.  Wahwha argues that the shift of research and development efforts to places like China and India is a natural consequence of market conditions and that labor market conditions suggest that there is no shortage of engineers and scientists in the U.S. Barrett argues that the U.S. is underinvesting is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and that many of the most promising graduates of STEM programs in our top universities are foreign who take their knowledge home with them.

This is very well-trodden ground for both men and they are thoughtful and effective advocates for their respective views. But I think both are missing something important.

Photo of Erika DeBenedictis

Erika DeBenedictis receives top awards at 2010 Intel STS (photo: Intel)

Last night, I was honored to attend the annual awards gala for the Intel Science Talent Search and over the weekend I was able to talk with some of the 40 finalists during an open house at the National Academy of Sciences. What distinguishes these high school seniors is not their intelligence, which is awesome, nor their extremely impressive research projects. It is the passion they bring to whatever they do that really sets them apart.

I have known many researchers in academia, many entrepreneurs, and many folks who have done great thinks as technical executives in big corporations such as Microsoft, IBM, and Intel. They too are distinguished by their passion, their belief that what they are doing is important, that it might just change the world.

U.S. industry needs a steady supply of engineers and technicians to keep things humming, but the fact is that those who will really make a difference, who will come up with the products, or ideas, or research results that really mean something are a  very thin veneer at the top. The challenge is not a numbers game but getting the best of the best to develop a passion for STEM careers.

In recent years, it has been fashionable to bemoan the fact that many promising STEM graduates have chosen careers on Wall Street. My suspicion is that the most them weren’t much of a loss to the world of technology. A newly minted who chooses a career in finance over research and teaching probably wasn’t going to be much of a researcher anyway. It is, or was, a good way to get rich, but getting rich seems to me to be one of the last things motivating passionate researchers or even many entrepreneurs. It’s nice if it comes, but the real dream is discovery and building.

What we need in education is a way for our most promising students to find and pursue their passions. This takes great teachers and mentors who have the skills and are willing to take the time  to help talent blossom. That’s where the next generation of STEM leaders is going to come from and there is no magic bullet for doing this. It is a lot of hard, but hardly thankless, work. The parents and  teachers who saw their children and students on the stage at the STS gala got a physic reward that no amount of money can measure.

One Response to “The Missing Ingredient in the STEM Education Debate”

  1. Vivek Wadhwa Says:

    Steve, agree that we need to help build the passion for tech/engineering careers. Engineering has a major marketing problem.

    But I have seen some very bright students join investment banks. Investment banks do a great job of marketing careers to students and offer very high salaries. Hence they are able to skim off the top. The choice for these students isn’t banking or research. The choice is typically banking or engineering. We need these bright minds fixing the problems of the world. Here is another piece I wrote on this:


    Vivek Wadhwa

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