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When I Testified Before Congress

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 2, No. 4, July 2005

"You may be familiar with the television program 'LA Law.' Somewhat facetiously, I suggest that we need one called 'Detroit Manufacturing.' We need some public expression that celebrates math, science, and engineering in a way that young people find exciting."

On May 19, 2005, I had the privilege to attend a Congressional hearing on "Challenges to American Competitiveness in Math and Science" to testify before the Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness (Committee on Education and the Workforce), chaired by Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon. Four witnesses testified: Mr. Norm Augustine, Retired Chairman and CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation; Ms. June Streckfus, Executive Director, Maryland Business Roundtable for Education; Dr. Nancy Songer, Professor of Science Education and Learning Technologies, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; and myself.

I found it most illuminating to participate in this important process and to learn what is on the minds of some of our government officials. Let me share with you some of the issues that the committee members and witnesses discussed at the hearing on these critical issues. In fact, I encourage you to read the testimonies of the witnesses and to watch the videotape of the hearing. (Scroll to May 19, 2005).

In speaking to the committee , I:

  1. Reemphasized the significance of engineering to the nation and to the world;
  2. Outlined some of today's challenges and how engineering and science education are changing;
  3. Suggested some areas in which engineering and science education need to change; and
  4. Offered some recommendations for implementing change at a national level.

Following the witness statements, committee members both offered comments and asked a number of thought-provoking questions. They included:

  • a perception that, in contrast to the culture in China for example, our national culture seems not to value science and math, including education in those fields;
  • a concern that schools in our country might not be adapting to change and that this situation impinges on our global competitiveness;
  • a discussion of considerations for compensating teachers and honoring teaching as a profession;
  • questions about the roles of government and the private sector in bringing needed change to math, science, and engineering education;
  • observations about the declines in the numbers of engineering and science Ph.D.s; and
  • dialogue on the challenge of identifying a national imperative that would spark wide involvement.

Here are some of my comments at the hearing during the question-and-answer segment. [The following is excerpted and adapted from that portion of the hearing.]


Rep. McKeon contrasted the United States' and China's cultural attitudes toward education, noting China's greater emphasis on education as critical to quality of life and commenting on the pressure of two parents and four grandparents on each child under China's one-child-per-family policy. He also cited Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, as stating that the actual method of instruction in U.S. colleges has not changed significantly in over 40 years. Rep. McKeon asked, "If schools aren't willing to change their methods, adapt, so they can be more effective and efficient, how are we going to be able to compete?"

TLM Answer:

It's clear that those in China and India see education as the road to upward mobility, a view that we had held in this nation for a long time. While I would echo some of the concerns about our educational system, I would also suggest that many universities are in fact changing their pedagogy at this point. For example, at MIT we have implemented iLab, an iCampus project that allows MIT students to access novel online, real-time laboratories from dorm rooms and other locations 24 hours a day. The iLab concept has given students a new framework for carrying out experiments at several state-of-the-art labs (including a Microelectronics MEMS testing device, chemical reactor, and heat exchanger), synthesizing information, and relating it to underlying theory. This approach permits us to integrate laboratories more effectively with the lecture material in our classes. We can also provide greater access to laboratories, for example by providing access to university facilities to high school students or more extensive corporate research facilities to university students.

Another example of a change in pedagogy at MIT is evident in one of our signature courses: an introductory computer science course taken by about two-thirds of MIT undergraduate students. Traditionally, we have taught this course through lecturing in 300-person lecture halls. Now we teach this course without lectures, using voice-annotated PowerPoint slides and small recitation sessions that provide students with greater opportunities for interacting with professors.

While these are only two examples, and I could cite numerous others across the country, I think that we've seen a bit of a sea change in educational approaches at the university level. Although we might have "fallen asleep" for many years by not changing what we do, I see significant change in the pedagogy that we're developing, not just at MIT, but also at Michigan and many other universities. It is a time of transition right now and we need government and industrial support to help us make that transition.


Rep. McKeon followed my response with a question about what I meant by "government support, " specifically, money.

TLM Answer:

In terms of changing the infrastructure, yes, we could use some money. We could also provide opportunities for universities, government, and industry to get together, to create local consortiums, to provide better access to locally shared facilities among universities, and to pursue these goals in a wide variety of other ways.


Rep. Tom Osborne expressed concern that we're now producing only 75% the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s per unit population that we were producing in 1985 (a statistic I had quoted in my written testimony) and asked me why that might be the case.

TLM Answer:

If you take a look at the difference in salaries between MBAs and engineers, the differences are quite stark. In part this reflects a broad issue about recognizing and honoring the economic value of our engineering workforce. We also need to provide the right instruments and incentives to make engineering exciting as a career choice for young people. If we could develop an important, long-term national imperative on which we could all work, a kind of Sputnik of our era (whether energy, greater energy independence, or another focus), that could make a significant difference.


Rep. Ron Kind reflected on a recent trip he had taken to China and referenced the book by Tom Friedman, "The World Is Flat." (See the MIT WorldTM video.) He asked, "If you had to assign a grade to our country right now in terms of what we're doing to get ready for the competition in the global marketplace, and more specifically in the math, science, and engineering fields, what grade would you give us on an A to F scale? "


After first qualifying his comment to point out that our current system as "bi-modal," in which "the best is very good and the rest is very poor," Mr. Augustine gave an overall grade of between D+ and C-.

TLM: Mr. Augustine played a central role in the deliberations of the Council on Competitiveness that produced the National Innovation Initiative report, "Innovate America." Consistent with Rep. Kind's comment and the legislation he has recently reintroduced, that Council recommended the creation of a National Innovation Education Act. It would be comparable to the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of the 1950s. Whether it was Sputnik or whether it was NDEA that fueled a national interest, it's clear that the NDEA played a prominent role for people like myself in attending graduate school to study math and science. In their final report, the Council on Competitiveness also recommended creating 5,000 portable graduate fellowships, fellowships that, awarded competitively and based on merit, could enable students to pursue studies in emerging fields and respond to market needs rather than choose their specializations based on meeting financial pressures. By creating portable graduate fellowships, the government would make a strong statement that science and engineering are important and that the nation wants to invest in them.

While I hesitate to say much about the K-12 level of education in our country since we have more qualified witnesses present today, I would simply mention that educators tell us that people learn best when they're learning by doing or "action learning." Can we bring math and science education to life to a greater degree? This brings up a simple question: why do some students like math and science? Some like these studies because they have aptitudes for them; others do because they are attracted to them, because they find them exciting. One of the things we can try to do as a nation is to make math and science more exciting by making them more relevant and by incorporating more learning by doing. We could do that by adding some engineering to the math and science teaching in K-12; we can approach this as a system that could embrace engineers from the local community. Local engineers could help with those courses, including serving as important role models. I believe that there are ways we can infuse new life into the K-12 system and make these fields exciting for young people.


Rep. Susan Davis asked questions regarding women and minorities in top positions in universities and also about encouraging these groups to pursue these fields.

TLM Answer:

This is a significant issue, and I'm glad to say that we see some progress. Today we see more women in academic leadership positions in our country. At the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and MIT, we now have women presidents. The situation for women in engineering and science is improving. For example, at MIT about half our incoming class are women, a figure that startles some people when they hear it. Women comprise about 34% of MIT's undergraduate students majoring in engineering, in contrast to under 20% nationally. But the issue for underrepresented minorities pursuing degrees in science, math, and engineering is much more drastic. Attention to both groups is a concern, but as a nation, we're simply not attracting enough underrepresented minorities to engineering and science. (See "Diversity: Critical to Our Educational Mission.")


Rep. Tom Price spoke of the challenge we face with an American culture that seems to no longer inspire students to pursue math and science studies. He asked what ideas in our "wildest dreams" we think could again ignite that "spark" in our culture.

TLM Answer:

You may be familiar with the television program "LA Law." Somewhat facetiously, I suggest that we need one called "Detroit Manufacturing." We need some public expression that celebrates math, science, and engineering in a way that young people find exciting. That's one idea. I can also imagine a public campaign about how exciting math and science are to the world. There are a variety of ways we could map that out, but instigating something that would truly spark the nation might be particularly useful.

Needless to say, the issues addressed in this congressional hearing are important to all of us. I hope that many of you will support the type of innovations and programs that the forum discussed during these significant deliberations.