Scientific Illiteracy in the High-Tech Age

Jan. 1, 1983
As an educator, a businessman, and now a federal official directly involved with the defense of our nation, I am disturbed by a trend that has been developing in this great country over the past twenty years. That is the growing scientific illiteracy of many of our youth. This trend is in direct opposition to the past, present, and future direction of technology.

As technology leaps ahead, the requirement for a scientifically literate citizenry, able to master the implications of the new technologies, grows ever more important. Indeed our nation’s very technological advantage in defense and the future ability of our economy to compete in world markets may eventually be at stake.

It is important before proceeding with this discussion to outline important trends affecting this country and our Air Force.

The numbers of eighteen-year-olds (already down four percent) will decline another twenty-one percent by 1992. The minority portion of this population is increasing, fueled both by immigration levels and higher birth rates. Public school mathematics achievement scores and Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery test results (especially on the mechanical and electronics portions) vary significantly by the sex, racial background, and geographic region of those tested.

While our enviable recruiting and retention record meets our requirements today, we face stiffer recruiting challenges over the next decade as the number of technically proficient young men and women eligible for military service decline and their opportunities in the job market improve.

Particularly from the standpoint of human resources, American industry is transitioning from basic manufacturing to information and knowledge processing. This transition is creating skill imbalances as we move toward a labor force composed of more highly technical white-collar jobs and away from semiskilled jobs in heavy industry. This discussion is limited to the “high-tech” portion of the job market.

Three revolutions make this transition possible—computer, telecommunications, and robotics—all stemming from development of the microprocessor. Fortune Magazine reports that full one-half of the capital equipment purchased by the private sector is in high-technology categories. That portion has doubled since 1972.

One of the great dilemmas facing industry is the decision regarding the choice of retraining their present work force for these newer skills—often difficult because of age and education—or hiring people from the marketplace already possessing the needed skills. To the disadvantage of the Air Force, many companies are choosing to hire people with the needed skills rather than make the expensive investment in retraining programs. As American industry transitions to these new technologies, and skill imbalances are created, more and more skilled and experienced Air Force people find they possess highly marketable skills—even in today’s job market.

For example, a recently released study by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association projects a potential shortfall of 40,000 aircraft mechanics by 1990. This projection is based on several factors: The spectacular growth forecast for general aviation once the economy improves, the unusually high attrition expected (Air Force civilian mechanics mirror this trend—about one-half become retirement eligible during the 1980s), the broad transferability of aircraft maintenance-type skills to other areas of the economy requiring electronic, hydraulic, and diagnostic mechanical skills, and the small number of civilian schools offering aircraft maintenance courses.

That same study found that many other industries require the unique skills possessed by aircraft mechanics. Shortages of avionics technicians are already evident.

Air Force planners estimate that by the year 2000 the Air Force requirement for people with high electronic aptitudes will increase by about one-third. The general and mechanical aptitudes also will experience slight growth with a corresponding decline in requirements for those in the administrative category.

Today a background in mathematics or science is desirable in 118 skills and more than seventy percent of the Air Force’s enlisted force. Technical requirements of the Air Force’s sister services are also increasing. Between 1980 and 1982, Army technical skill requirements increased thirty-four percent. Ongoing force modernization will further increase that percentage. The Navy anticipates a seventeen percent growth for people with mathematics, scientific, and technical skills by 1987.

My concerns are heightened by the fact that these same changes are under way in the private sector. For example, only about 225,000 computers were in use in 1975. By 1985, there are projected to be about 6,000,000. Many experts believe that one of the primary limiting factors to this potential growth may well be the numbers of people required to service and program these machines. A recent survey by the American Electronics Association found that, by 1985, the electronics industry plans to double their recruiting of technicians from the military.

Telecommunications was a $15 billion business in 1980. An industry study projects growth to more than triple by 1990. The acceptance by the public and growth of this medium for communications, chiefly teleconferencing, may reduce business travel significantly by the 1990s.

According to the Robot Institute of America, there will be a twelvefold increase in industrial robots in the United States by 1990. The General Electric Co. estimates the annual market for industrial robots to be about $4 billion today. They project that to grow to $30 billion by 1990. GE currently uses 200 industrial robots in their own manufacturing operations. By 1984 they expect to have about 1,000 in operation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects almost a million new robot manufacturing jobs by 1990. Thousands of highly skilled people will also be needed to maintain and service these machines. Robot technicians must possess those previously mentioned skills of the aircraft mechanic.

The Air Force established a Space Command in Colorado Springs in September 1982 (Air Force involvement was featured in the November 1982 Air Force Magazine.) Rapidly expanding national space programs will require people, whether Air Force members, civilian employees, or contractor-employed, with unprecedented skill levels and technological sophistication to support the Space Command mission. Training programs are lengthy, sophisticated, and expensive. Given current trends, we must ensure an adequate supply of American technicians in the future if we are to build, operate, and maintain these systems.

Academic Trends

Between 1963 and 1980, mean Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in mathematics dropped thirty-six points. This decline in math skills came during a period of unparalleled technological progress. The people responsible for that progress are growing older—the scores of those coming on are lower. What is most disturbing, however, is the fact that the number of students scoring in the lowest group during this same period increased by about forty percent. This may be due in part to increasing numbers of students taking the SATs.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, only about one-third of our high schools offer enough mathematic courses to qualify a graduate to enter an accredited engineering school. One-half of our high school students no longer take a mathematics course past the tenth grade. About one-half of public school mathematics teachers are either unqualified or uncertified—currently teaching on emergency certificates. As a logical result, remedial mathematics course enrollments in public four-year colleges have increased by more than seventy percent in just the past five years.

Shortages of mathematics and science teachers have reached serious proportions. An Iowa State University survey finds forty states reporting shortages—many critical—of public school mathematics, physics, and chemistry teachers. During the 1970s, the number of teachers being trained fell sixty-five percent in the sciences. The same Iowa State study predicts these shortages will remain through most of the 1980s.

The sad fact is that many mathematics and science teachers are leaving the teaching profession and entering business and industry for economic reasons. This testimony is corroborated by other statistics. A National Science Foundation study disclosed that only about sixteen percent of US high school seniors take a year of chemistry, and that less than ten percent take physics.

These downward academic trends are becoming evident in something for which Americans have always been noted—inventiveness. Since 1965 the percentage of US patents awarded to foreign nationals has increased about twenty-five percent. With the increasing emphasis on mathematics, science, and high technology in other parts of the world, this trend may continue its growth.

Academic Application Comparisons

According to Paul DeHart Hurd, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, American elementary teachers devote an average of forty-four minutes to mathematics and twenty minutes to science each day. During a week of instruction totaling only about twenty-five instructional hours, children will receive less than two hours of science and less than four hours of arithmetic. Both our allies and our economic and ideological competitors, including the Soviet Union, East Germany, the People’s Republic of China, France, and Japan, are moving toward twelve-year programs of public education.

The school year in those countries averages of about 240 days a year—twenty-five percent more time than is devoted to education in the United States. The school day is six to eight hours long and the school week is either five and a half or six days. The academic instruction time in each subject exceeds that of the United States at all grade levels. (According to Dr. Isaac Wirsip, Professor Mathematics at the University of Chicago, the typical Soviet science student takes one to two years more algebra, eight years more geometry, one to two years more chemistry, three and one-half years more biology, one year more astronomy, and three years more mechanical drawing than an American counterpart.)

National education publications emphasized the importance of science and mathematics to both economic and cultural pursuits. Scientific knowledge is considered essential for living in a modern world.

Most experts agree that we already have a developing national engineering shortage in selected disciplines. American engineering schools currently have faculty shortages of about ten percent. Foreign students are increasingly constituting a major portion of our engineering school enrollments, and earned one-half the doctorates granted by American engineering schools in 1981. Aeronautical engineer production has dropped more than forty percent since 1970 while employment growth projections range more than seventy percent by 1990. The Soviet Union is graduating almost 300,000 new engineers a year—many working in defense-related jobs. In comparison, the United States graduated about one-fifth that number last year.

Although I do not advocate matching the Soviets in a numbers game (there are differing viewpoints as to the overall quality of Soviet education), I do know this trend is not conducive to our future security. The Japanese—having decided that their future rested in development of high technology—tripled their engineer production during the 1970s, while we in the United States doubled our production of lawyers. On a per capita basis, the Japanese now graduate almost two and one-half times more engineers than American schools produce. The evidence of this Japanese effort is on view in automobile and electronic equipment showrooms all across America, and in many countries we like to consider as in our economic sphere of influence.

Impacts of Technological Trends

The combination of our growing reliance on technology and concurrent trend toward scientific illiteracy of American youth has serious implications for our ability to compete economically in an increasingly technologically oriented world. It has even more serious repercussions for defense. One of the keys to our military strategy has for some time been to build fewer but technologically superior weapons to overcome the numerically superior forces of potential adversaries.

Maintaining that overall technical edge is absolutely crucial to this strategy. Recent conflicts in the Falklands and the Mideast have proven conclusively that the mastery of technology is far more crucial than simply possessing that that technology. Modern sophisticated weapon systems in the hands of well-led, well-trained people who were given freedom of action in the skies and on the battlefield again proved a devastating combination.

Our growing scientific illiteracy and the massive transfer—by overt and cover means—of our most sophisticated technologies to the Soviets is most disconcerting and downright alarming when combined with the massive technical education programs of the Warsaw Pact.

The current trends are unacceptable if America wants to remain competitive in a technologically oriented world. Not everyone has to be a fully qualified scientist or mathematician. However, there is a very real need to be scientifically literate—to at least understand basic scientific principles to make informed decisions. I must also caution that we cannot afford to overreact and eliminate balanced educational programs—but there is no question that both the quantity and quality of mathematics and science courses must be improved.

The Need for a New National Commitment

The most important goal needed at this time is a renewed national commitment (the same kind of emphasis that existed after the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957) on the part of all Americans to upgrade our precollege (and thus college) education in mathematics, the sciences, and technologies. I do not mean to imply that this educational lag is not shared by other countries—or that there are not steps under way in many areas across this country because of increasing concern voiced by many parents dismayed at the education of their children. Many local school systems are once again emphasizing high standards of academic achievement and adding courses in mathematics and science.

But clearly this movement must take hold on a national scale—in all geographic regions of the US. Development of the full potential of women and minority students is clearly needed. Any child displaying a talent for mathematics and science must be encouraged to pursue studies and careers in these areas. In that regard, the mean SAT score in mathematics rose three points in 1982, the first increase in memory. While encouraging, it is hardly a trend. Current trends are totally unacceptable to a technologically oriented Air Force poised on the threshold of space operations. Accordingly, it is the ideal time for the Air Force to become involved. We have an obligation to assist the reawakening of America to the importance of science and technology to our national well-being.

I would like to discuss briefly some efforts now under way. One Air Force program that has made a difference in Electronic Security Command’s pre-college technical orientation program (PRETOP). Using minimal resources, PRETOP is a lively combination of words, music, and slides, designed to interest youngsters in both the impact and importance of technology and to demonstrate that mathematics and science courses can be fun. The program has stimulated great interest in the sciences in the San Antonio, Tex., schools.

The National Science Foundation recently formed a Commission on Pre-College Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology to examine this problem and propose solutions. The commission consists of many distinguished American educators, scientists, and other experts. Gen. Lew Allen, Jr., our recently retired Chief of Staff, is serving as a member. The American Society of Engineering Education is sponsoring the National Engineering Action Conference (NEAC) that is examining ways not only to increase the supply of engineers available to all sectors, but to enhance their productivity as well.

I recently wrote to the presidents of the national engineering professional societies and to Air Force commanders mainly responsible for the bulk of our engineers, soliciting their cooperation in ensuring Air Force engineers were given every opportunity to join and participate in the activities of the professional societies. This is important not only to ensure the technical currency of our people but to establish better communications between the military and the private sectors, as well as kindle some of that cooperative spirit needed to tackle national problems of this magnitude.

I perceive a need at this critical juncture for a coordinated Air Force-wide program to assist this reawakening. All of us can speak out on the need for scientific and technical literacy. We can attend and sponsor science fairs, speak to elementary and secondary school career days through PRETOP-type programs, and sponsor special open houses and exhibits on our bases. Most of our large laboratories, development centers, and bases are near major metropolitan areas, so we have the capability, more than any other one organization, to reach the majority of American youth.

The Air Force has an obligation both to itself and to the nation to do all that we can to assist efforts to improve the scientific and technical literacy of our young people. Among the keys to success are closer cooperation between academia, the private sector, government, and the military. Innovative solutions will be needed to solve potential Air Force recruiting and retention problems downstream. With a clear understanding of the trends and their implications, I am certain the entire Air Force family will respond to this challenge—as we have to all others in our illustrious history. The long-term future of our Air Force and the national well-being depend upon it.

Verne Orr was appointed to his post by President Reagan, with whom he served in the California state government and during the Presidential campaign and transition. He served in the Navy in World War II, and was discharged from the Naval Reserve in 1951 as a lieutenant commander. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Pomona College and a master’s in business administration from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.