Republicans and Democrats agree that the country needs more science and engineering graduates--STEM geeks, if you will. They also agree that foreigners who are earning those degrees at U.S. universities should be able to stay here and fill the need for skilled workers. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., posited that each visa given to a foreign graduate student in a STEM field would create three jobs. President Obama wants to staple green cards to their diplomas.
These notions were bandied about the presidential campaign like plastic beads at Mardi Gras, and they came up again last week when the House passed legislation that would make 55,000 green cards available a year to foreigners earning advanced degrees in STEM fields. The measure won't go any further because Democrats want broader immigration reform, but the general idea has bipartisan support.
Here's the rub. Americans don't seem to be going for those degrees with the same gusto as foreign students. There are fewer home-grown STEM students than those who came from somewhere else. According to the Congressional Research Service, almost one-third of STEM graduates in 2009 were foreign nationals. A separate study in 2009 from the Education Department shows that another 30 percent of STEM students are naturalized citizens, meaning they were not born in the United States.
What's going on here? Are the science and engineering fields too difficult for Americans to handle? Why are foreign students drawn to these fields? How can educators in this country engage students in science and math? Does it make sense to focus on the economic need? Or do high school counselors just need to make science and math seem cool?