As technology leaps ahead, the requirement for a scientifically literate citizenry, able to master the implications of the new technologies, grows ever more important. Indeed our nation’s very technological advantage in defense and the future ability of our economy to compete in world markets may eventually be at stake.
The numbers of eighteen-year-olds (already down four percent) will decline another twenty-one percent by 1992. The minority portion of this population is increasing, fueled both by immigration levels and higher birth rates. Public school mathematics achievement scores and Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery test results (especially on the mechanical and electronics portions) vary significantly by the sex, racial background, and geographic region of those tested.
Particularly from the standpoint of human resources, American industry is transitioning from basic manufacturing to information and knowledge processing. This transition is creating skill imbalances as we move toward a labor force composed of more highly technical white-collar jobs and away from semiskilled jobs in heavy industry. This discussion is limited to the “high-tech” portion of the job market.
One of the great dilemmas facing industry is the decision regarding the choice of retraining their present work force for these newer skills—often difficult because of age and education—or hiring people from the marketplace already possessing the needed skills. To the disadvantage of the Air Force, many companies are choosing to hire people with the needed skills rather than make the expensive investment in retraining programs. As American industry transitions to these new technologies, and skill imbalances are created, more and more skilled and experienced Air Force people find they possess highly marketable skills—even in today’s job market.
That same study found that many other industries require the unique skills possessed by aircraft mechanics. Shortages of avionics technicians are already evident.
Today a background in mathematics or science is desirable in 118 skills and more than seventy percent of the Air Force’s enlisted force. Technical requirements of the Air Force’s sister services are also increasing. Between 1980 and 1982, Army technical skill requirements increased thirty-four percent. Ongoing force modernization will further increase that percentage. The Navy anticipates a seventeen percent growth for people with mathematics, scientific, and technical skills by 1987.
Telecommunications was a $15 billion business in 1980. An industry study projects growth to more than triple by 1990. The acceptance by the public and growth of this medium for communications, chiefly teleconferencing, may reduce business travel significantly by the 1990s.
The Air Force established a Space Command in Colorado Springs in September 1982 (Air Force involvement was featured in the November 1982 Air Force Magazine.) Rapidly expanding national space programs will require people, whether Air Force members, civilian employees, or contractor-employed, with unprecedented skill levels and technological sophistication to support the Space Command mission. Training programs are lengthy, sophisticated, and expensive. Given current trends, we must ensure an adequate supply of American technicians in the future if we are to build, operate, and maintain these systems.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, only about one-third of our high schools offer enough mathematic courses to qualify a graduate to enter an accredited engineering school. One-half of our high school students no longer take a mathematics course past the tenth grade. About one-half of public school mathematics teachers are either unqualified or uncertified—currently teaching on emergency certificates. As a logical result, remedial mathematics course enrollments in public four-year colleges have increased by more than seventy percent in just the past five years.
The sad fact is that many mathematics and science teachers are leaving the teaching profession and entering business and industry for economic reasons. This testimony is corroborated by other statistics. A National Science Foundation study disclosed that only about sixteen percent of US high school seniors take a year of chemistry, and that less than ten percent take physics.
Academic Application ComparisonsAccording to Paul DeHart Hurd, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, American elementary teachers devote an average of forty-four minutes to mathematics and twenty minutes to science each day. During a week of instruction totaling only about twenty-five instructional hours, children will receive less than two hours of science and less than four hours of arithmetic. Both our allies and our economic and ideological competitors, including the Soviet Union, East Germany, the People’s Republic of China, France, and Japan, are moving toward twelve-year programs of public education.
National education publications emphasized the importance of science and mathematics to both economic and cultural pursuits. Scientific knowledge is considered essential for living in a modern world.
Although I do not advocate matching the Soviets in a numbers game (there are differing viewpoints as to the overall quality of Soviet education), I do know this trend is not conducive to our future security. The Japanese—having decided that their future rested in development of high technology—tripled their engineer production during the 1970s, while we in the United States doubled our production of lawyers. On a per capita basis, the Japanese now graduate almost two and one-half times more engineers than American schools produce. The evidence of this Japanese effort is on view in automobile and electronic equipment showrooms all across America, and in many countries we like to consider as in our economic sphere of influence.
Maintaining that overall technical edge is absolutely crucial to this strategy. Recent conflicts in the Falklands and the Mideast have proven conclusively that the mastery of technology is far more crucial than simply possessing that that technology. Modern sophisticated weapon systems in the hands of well-led, well-trained people who were given freedom of action in the skies and on the battlefield again proved a devastating combination.
The current trends are unacceptable if America wants to remain competitive in a technologically oriented world. Not everyone has to be a fully qualified scientist or mathematician. However, there is a very real need to be scientifically literate—to at least understand basic scientific principles to make informed decisions. I must also caution that we cannot afford to overreact and eliminate balanced educational programs—but there is no question that both the quantity and quality of mathematics and science courses must be improved.
But clearly this movement must take hold on a national scale—in all geographic regions of the US. Development of the full potential of women and minority students is clearly needed. Any child displaying a talent for mathematics and science must be encouraged to pursue studies and careers in these areas. In that regard, the mean SAT score in mathematics rose three points in 1982, the first increase in memory. While encouraging, it is hardly a trend. Current trends are totally unacceptable to a technologically oriented Air Force poised on the threshold of space operations. Accordingly, it is the ideal time for the Air Force to become involved. We have an obligation to assist the reawakening of America to the importance of science and technology to our national well-being.
The National Science Foundation recently formed a Commission on Pre-College Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology to examine this problem and propose solutions. The commission consists of many distinguished American educators, scientists, and other experts. Gen. Lew Allen, Jr., our recently retired Chief of Staff, is serving as a member. The American Society of Engineering Education is sponsoring the National Engineering Action Conference (NEAC) that is examining ways not only to increase the supply of engineers available to all sectors, but to enhance their productivity as well.
I perceive a need at this critical juncture for a coordinated Air Force-wide program to assist this reawakening. All of us can speak out on the need for scientific and technical literacy. We can attend and sponsor science fairs, speak to elementary and secondary school career days through PRETOP-type programs, and sponsor special open houses and exhibits on our bases. Most of our large laboratories, development centers, and bases are near major metropolitan areas, so we have the capability, more than any other one organization, to reach the majority of American youth.
The Air Force has an obligation both to itself and to the nation to do all that we can to assist efforts to improve the scientific and technical literacy of our young people. Among the keys to success are closer cooperation between academia, the private sector, government, and the military. Innovative solutions will be needed to solve potential Air Force recruiting and retention problems downstream. With a clear understanding of the trends and their implications, I am certain the entire Air Force family will respond to this challenge—as we have to all others in our illustrious history. The long-term future of our Air Force and the national well-being depend upon it.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag