Can U.S. schools supply the engineers we need?

Future Tense for Nov. 26, 2007

My grandfather, J.I. Marshall, was a building engineer and one of two civilian construction superintendents who built the Pentagon — then and still the world’s largest office building.

My father, C.H. Welker, was a civil engineer. He helped oversee construction of Mangla Dam in Pakistan, at the time the world’s largest earth-filled dam and still the 12th largest in the world. He also helped design Greece’s national hydroelectric system.

My aunt, Mrs. G.L. Morrison, retired from IBM Corp. as a senior systems analyst — at the time, one of the few women in that position — and then started her own software company.

My brother, D.A. Welker, designed security software programs for IBM while still in his 20s and later helped develop an international systems-integration project for Dow Chemical.

And me? I designed, specced and supervised installation of a $650,000, 60-node, mixed PC and Macintosh network for a newspaper publishing company.

I’m not telling you this to brag on me or my family, but to establish my credentials to talk about something that concerns me.

Who will be our successors in science and engineering? Will the United States continue to produce people like those men and women who studied and mastered complex technologies and then — with imagination, inventiveness and energy — built the modern world? Or will today’s education system — because of its rigid K-12 curriculums designed to supply students with the answers to a series of high-stakes tests — produce a generation of risk-averse, unimaginative, do-what’s-necessary-to-pass-the-exam drones?

You see, I know what kind of education produced J.I., Chuck, Deegee and Dugan and I see too little evidence of it in today’s schools.

I'm certainly not alone in my opinion.

Craig Barrett of Intel says, “The biggest ticking time bomb we have in the U.S. is the sorry state of our K-12 education. Other countries are reaching parity with and exceeding us.”

Barrett cites studies such as one in which American 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 industrialized nations on practical math applications.

There is “one simple reason we’re lagging behind,” Barrett wrote. “We’ve institutionalized low performance through low expectations. High schools expect only a small number of students to take the advanced math and science courses young people need. Moreover, all signs suggest that future requirements for high school completion may be even less rigorous. Several states, concerned about achievement rates, are considering easing their graduation standards, even though their exit exams are pegged below the 10th-grade level.”

Bill Gates of Microsoft pulls no punches when he talks about failings in education. He takes direct aim at U.S. high schools.

“In math and science,” Gates said, “our fourth graders are among the top students in the world. By eighth grade, they’re in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations.”

“America’s high schools are obsolete,” he says. “When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.... The poor performance of our high schools in preparing students for college is a major reason why the United States has now dropped from first to fifth in the percentage of young adults with a college degree.”

EMC CEO Joe Tucci, in a column on, wrote, “Highly skilled workers, trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, are the ones who generate breakthrough innovations.... America enjoys a high standard of living, but we are falling behind in producing the technical talent we will need to sustain our economic leadership in the world.

“...In 1975, the United States ranked among the top three industrialized nations for the percentage of 24-year-olds holding bachelor’s degrees in sciences and engineering. Since then, 12 countries from Ireland to South Korea have leapfrogged the United States on this score.”

So, we are agreed that there’s a problem. The next question is, “What do we do about it?”

Barrett, Gates and Tucci offer some proposals to fix American education.

I’ll talk about those ideas in my next column ... in the future.


Steve Welker is the editor of

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