Science is not a popular subject. Whether it is served up as chemistry, biology or physics, students tend to have an aversion to anything that might involve glass beakers or laws of motion.
“Whenever I tell people that I work in chemistry, they say ‘Ew, that’s hard,'” said Hai-Lung Dai, the new dean of the College of Science and Technology.
Since leaving Taiwan to earn his chemistry doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, doing postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and serving as the chair professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, Dai has had a lot of experience with both science and people’s general dislike of it.
“Penn has very few science students,” he said, “Most want to be doctors or lawyers.”
This aversion is amplified, and maybe caused by, the lack of science in high schools in America. Dai said that compared to no mandatory physics classes in most U.S. high schools, Singaporean students have two physics classes before they go to college.
The void, left by lackluster science in high school, has created a niche in college science programs that has been filled by foreigners.
“Two-thirds of our advanced degrees in science and technology at Penn were given to foreigners,” Dai said. The U.S. now produces about 90,000 engineers every year, compared to 260,000 from China.
America is losing jobs, and not just in factories. According to information from IBM’s Web site, the corporation has opened three foreign research facilities since 1980, with an employee count of 448, compared to one domestic research facility, which has only 74 employees.
Peter Maroney, a professor of economics at Temple, confirmed the economic drain taking place in America.
“The U.S. trade debt is 6 percent of the [gross domestic product] every year,” he said. “Seven billion dollars of foreign capital inflow comes into the U.S. every working day.” Basically, that means that 6 percent of the money the U.S. makes every year comes from other countries buying our debt.
This is a grim outlook for American college students, especially those studying at universities considered second-tier to Ivy League schools. After all, if foreign students with superior high school education are being chosen by the best universities, where can U.S. students with average-at-best educations turn? To the contrary of this outlook, Dai said he believes that Temple can still be effective and relevant today.
“I think that Temple has a different mission,” Dai said, adding that, to many of our international competitors, “modernization means being able to compete in science and technology.” He said Temple will be an important agent in getting American students ready to compete with this science-savvy foreign competition.
Dai is in a position to make sure that this becomes the case. As dean of CST, he is in charge of the fourth largest college at Temple, in terms of enrollment.
However, to really deal with the issue, the country may need something much more immediate and jarring.
“Unfortunately, a democracy does not respond to gradual change,” Dai said. “All these problems really require an awakening.”
Stephen Zook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.