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The United States needs to find new ways to excite today's schoolchildren about the possibilities that math, science and engineering can hold for them, the dean of MIT's School of Engineering recently testified during a congressional hearing on "Challenges to American Competitiveness in Math and Science."
Thomas Magnanti, speaking to the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness on May 19, called for improvements in math, science and engineering education at all levels to train not only future engineers, but also to prepare "technology conversant decision-makers and leaders in all spheres and echelons of society." Magnanti has frequently commented that we desperately need such leaders to address the critical problems facing today's world.
Calling attention to the contributions engineers have made to society, he said, "I would ask you to imagine a world without the fruits of engineering: a world without the pervasive availability of electricity and purified water; without mass communication and transportation, aeronautics and flight; without air-conditioning and refrigeration; without contemporary health technologies; without agriculture mechanization; without computers, electronics and wireless communication; and without petroleum and petrochemical technology."
Today, even as engineering holds out the promise of making extraordinary contributions to the life sciences, information technology and more, the United States is losing its edge, Magnanti said. High-tech exports are down and universities are issuing fewer engineering bachelor's degrees (relative to the population) than they were 20 years ago.
To reverse this trend, the United States needs to do more to attract a broader range of people to engineering-including women, underrepresented minorities and those daunted by the high cost of a university education, he said.
Change would start with efforts to interest children in science and engineering before they graduate from high school. Exposing children to the active learning opportunities offered by engineering would be "a great motivator not only for technology, but also science and math," he said.
Magnanti also pressed the legislators to do more to attract and retain international talent, pointing out that four of the 11 living MIT faculty who won Nobel Prizes were born abroad.
And, he outlined ways to create more support for engineering at the university level. He recommended that legislators provide government support for portable graduate fellowships in math, science and engineering. He also called for more hands-on experience for undergraduates and for graduate programs that include professional practice.
Magnanti cited several MIT success stories as models of what works-including the iCampus project, which "has focused on the development of educational technology systems for science and engineering education" and the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, which, he said, "enhances the development of professional 'soft' skills our students will need in engineering practice, within a curricular context of real world case studies and active learning."
Another example focused on identifying and developing the next generation of America's engineers and scientists is MIT's 30-year-old MITE2S program (Minority Introduction to Engineering Entrepreneurship and Science) for talented high school juniors across the nation, offered in tandem with two local programs for younger children: the Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program.
In sum, Magnanti called for the legislators to help educators get where they want and need to go. "Throughout MIT's campus, there is more excitement about education innovations today than any time in the 34 years I have been at MIT," he said. "And yet, what we have done is only a tiny fraction of what we need to do to meet the many challenges."
Read Magnanti's full testimony at the Committee on Education and the Workforce's website.