Johnson to Senate: Engineer Change

October 1, 2002

 

Kristina Johnson, dean of Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, urged America to improve the science and math education of its children, particularly girls and minorities, so the nation will have the intellectual wherewithal to deal with terrorism and other complex issues.

Dean's list: emphasize sciences earlier, involve more women

Dean's list: emphasize sciences earlier, involve more women.

Speaking this summer before a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, she said, "It is clear we are engaged in a different kind of war that must be won with advanced logistics, networking, sensors, and communications systems. And we will need the most highly-skilled technical workforce to succeed in this fight."

Women, she said, constitute less than 20 percent of the graduates of the nation's engineering schools and minorities account for less than 15 percent of graduates in technical fields. "What was once a moral obligation to promote diversity by providing equal opportunity for interesting, high-paying careers for all citizens is now a national imperative. Simply put, unless we bring more women and minorities into science and engineering fields, we will not have the intellectual capital to address the major economic, environmental, health, and security issues facing our nation. Developing our underutilized human resources can be our competitive advantage," she said.

Johnson, the first woman to head Duke's engineering school, said the number of students graduating with engineering and technology-based degrees in the United States has steadily declined over the past generation, from 77,000 in 1985 to 60,000 in 1998.

"Furthermore, our country's majority demographics are changing from male and Caucasian to female and African American, Asian, and Hispanic. We need to ensure that groups currently under-represented in science, engineering, and technology are attracted to careers in these fields. In today's competitive global environment, we cannot afford to lose the human capital these groups represent."

She said there are three significant barriers to getting women involved and succeeding in technological fields. The first is the fact that many high schools allow college-bound students to avoid taking four years of math and science classes. "Maybe math is the broccoli of high-school education. But we don't let our children get by without broccoli just because they don't like it. Nor should we let them avoid math just because they don't like it."

Johnson said the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, published in 1996, showed that the nation's twelfth-grade students ranked among the lowest in the world in mathematical proficiency. Yet, in the same study, fourth-graders scored above average as compared to their counterparts in the twenty-six other countries in the study.

"Let us make our 'man on the moon' goal for this decade a call to intellectual arms, to commit ourselves to providing a superior technical education to our children, so that by the time our current fourth-grade students graduate from high school in 2010, they will still be among the best in the world in math and science proficiency," she said.

Another barrier is the misperception that engineering and technology careers are "dry," without interaction, and unattractive to women, said Johnson. She cited a study that found 90 percent of women polled claimed altruistic reasons for choosing a career in science, engineering, or technology. In engineering departments where opportunities to make social contributions are obvious, such as biomedical engineering, women make up a substantial percent of the graduates, she said.

A third barrier to inspiring women and minority students to pursue science and technology careers is the lack of role models and support. Women only constitute 8 percent of the faculty at U.S. engineering schools and colleges, she said. "We must attract a more diverse population to the professoriat. We need more women and minority students going to graduate school to provide the role models and mentors for our changing population. When they get to graduate school, we need to provide adequate support. Women graduate students more often support themselves in graduate school on their own funds, and/or by working as teaching and research assistants, while men are funded usually on research assistantships, allowing them to focus on the research necessary to obtain a Ph.D., the necessary degree for obtaining a faculty position in the academy."