The Alchemy of Science Education

Alchemy is the medieval science of trying to turn cheap metal into gold, or more philosophically, the act of magically turning something of lesser value into something of greater value.


Not many people are familiar with the word alchemy, but alchemy is exactly what the United States is hoping to do with its education system when it comes to producing workers who can help the American economy keep up with the rest of the world.

And therein lies the rub. American competitiveness starts with people who are good at science, technology, engineering, and math, known by the acronym STEM. But the United States is no longer at the top when it comes to student achievement in those areas. It’s what William Bennett, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, calls a “disaster in the making.”Take a look at some of the statistics:

  • The U.S. ranks 25th in math and 17th in science among industrialized nations.
  • Only 16% of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career, according to the Department of Education.
  • Only about half of college STEM majors go on to get STEM jobs.
  • Between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. government forecasts a 62% increase in biomedical engineering jobs, a 36% increase in medical scientist jobs, a 32% increase in software systems developers jobs, and a 22% increase in computer systems analyst jobs. Even mathematician jobs are expected to see a 16% increase. These are all solidly above the 14% expected growth rate for jobs doing everything else.

Another statistic highlights the economic power of STEM education: over the next decade, the economy will need nearly one million more STEM professionals than the United States will produce at the current rate. That’s according to a January 2014 report from the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.

So here’s the catch. Nearly half of the world’s 100 most innovative companies are American. They’re companies like chemical maker 3M, pharma giant Abbott Laboratories, aerospace company Boeing, and semiconductor powerhouses Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, and Texas Instruments.

Their innovations stimulate economic growth, and if the United States wants to continue being a world leader in innovation and technology, it has to keep producing STEM graduates. With globalization, the world is getting more competitive. In 2009, we crossed a significant threshold: over half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.

If American companies want to lead their industries, they have to hire more STEM-educated graduates. That’s going to be hard, because there are almost two online job postings for every unemployed worker with STEM qualifications these days. It’s a nice problem to have if you’ve got STEM qualifications, but it’s not as nice if you’re trying to run a company (or a country).

That statistic on job listings comes from Change the Equation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative to improve the quality of STEM learning in the United States. It’s just one of several nonprofits concerned with the economic consequences of STEM education in the United States. Organizations such as City Year, which Global Upside is proud to support, are focused on improving student performance in reading and math, and encouraging students in underprivileged areas to complete high school and go onto higher education. Global Upside is also proud to support San Jose’s Sacred Heart Nativity Schools, which provides education to students from low-income families.

Is STEM education the only thing that will drive the U.S. economy in the future? No. But it will be a major factor in whether the United States can continue to turn ideas into economic strength—in other words, alchemy.