Where have all the science students gone?

When junior Kate Murphy came to GW two years ago planning to major in political science, she was just one small fish in a very large pond.

Now, she’s one of fewer than 20 students majoring in physics, a program that graduated just four students last year and where she knows nearly everyone by name. She can’t help but notice the difference.

“It’s the nature of the school,” Murphy said. “We have great business programs and we have great polisci programs because we’re in Washington, but we naturally just don’t get a lot of science students,” she said.

It’s a sentiment you won’t find in an admissions brochure. At a university centered in the heart of the nation’s capital and engrossed in politics, students studying physical sciences may feel like their fields take a backseat.

But if Murphy feels out of place as a science major, it may not just be a result of where she goes to school. A report released last month by the National Academies, a leading science advisory group, found that the United States was lagging behind other countries in science and technology education and consequently losing its edge as a world leader in these areas.

Compiled by a panel of industry and academia experts, the study noted that graduating U.S. high school students scored below 21 other countries on standardized tests in math and science. It called for an additional $500,000 in research funds and a greater emphasis on promoting science in teaching at all levels.

The trend is nothing new but has received a growing amount of attention lately. With issues such as energy efficiency and global warming increasingly at the forefront of public discussion, many within the science community have started to worry about what the future for science in the United States might look like.

“I think it’s a huge problem,” said Jean Johnson, GW associate dean for health studies. “I think it’s a sign that we’re going to have a diminishing number of people to do the kind of research that’s going to be necessary to keep the U.S. at all competitive. Science and technology is where a lot of the innovations and changes that actually improve lives or improve the social structure take place.”

The problem is of particular concern to industries that rely on scientists to fuel their enterprises. Several American-based companies have increased donations to various research funds and established advertising campaigns to encourage more students to pursue careers in science-related areas, efforts they see as vital to the future of their businesses.

“If you look at all the companies in the United States, we’re all concerned that eventually we’re not going to have enough graduates in these fields in the future and that we’re going to have a shortfall,” said Truman Bell, education program officer for the Exxon Mobil Foundation. “If you think about the cycle of getting young people in a particular field, we’re talking 10 years or so to start putting out the people we need. We can’t wait 10 years down the road to figure out we have a shortfall. We need to start working on that now.”

While many understand the need to improve higher education in the United States, most in the field also agree that there’s no easy way to go about it. Experts say there are a variety of reasons why students may be dissuaded from science, none of which have readymade solutions.

One obstacle is the sheer difficulty of the physical sciences, buoyed by a common perception that such studies are reserved for an elite group of particularly bright individuals. Many students think it takes a certain type of mind to understand science and engineering, making those programs hard to promote as a career choice.

“I think there are a lot more people out there who could study sciences and could have fun studying sciences than people give themselves credit for,” said Cornelius Bennhold, chair of the University’s physics department. “It’s a self-confidence issue. People come out of high school thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not so sure I can really do all the math or I can really do all the difficult subject efforts.'”

Adding to the problem is that many students are unclear as to what the career opportunities in science are. Shirley Malcolm, director of education at the American Association for Advancement in Science, said the science community has been deficient in communicating where a degree in science might lead.

“On the front end, it’s about the notion giving people an idea of what constitutes a career in science, and it’s not just about becoming one’s professor,” Malcolm said. “We need to tell the story of what science and engineering are, what they are not, and what they can allow you to do. I think there’s a lot more of that that needs to be done, and it needs to be done a lot earlier than we’ve been doing it.”

Indeed, Malcolm acknowledged that by the time a child reaches the college level, it is often too late to spark an interest. She and others said that much of the problem lies in early education, where instruction in areas of science and math is often subpar.

As those within the field lament the state of science education in the United States today, they’re also doing what they can to reverse course. This June, GW teamed up with AAAS to form D.C. FAME, a program that offers three-year master’s degrees in math and science education to middle school teachers from the District’s public school system. The idea is to better train younger generations in these areas so they come to college better prepared.

Individual science departments have started their own efforts internally. The physics department has developed a mentoring program where upperclassman majors reach out to undecided freshmen to make physics less daunting, and a number of science professors acknowledged the need to improve early classes to make their fields more attractive.

Still, several professors and observers said the problem requires a broader domestic push. Recalling the boom in scientific interest that occurred during the Cold War-era space race of the 1950s, some said they’d like to see the nation embrace a similar collective effort today, such as fuel alternatives or climate control.

“I think there really needs to be a national effort,” Bennhold said. “It’s not so much just a matter of getting the grades up and getting the scores up. It’s about getting the passion up.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.