America’s High-Tech Quandary

A brilliant article in DesignNews, which I found through an ACM news letter on how the US is appearing to lose its technical edge. A very third party-ish neutral article, urging the people of the US to wake up. The article is laden with facts – some of them which surprised even me. I usually do not write about US-bashing, but this article is a genuine plea.

Some nuggets:

China is headed toward a million engineers a year … and India isn’t far behind

“Numbers aren’t everything,” adds Orsak of SMU. “But it’s a lot easier to find a diamond when you’re searching through ten times as much material.”

Some contend that China’s national will in this matter is similar to the one it applied to sports more than two decades ago. Back then, China’s desire for a powerhouse basketball program resulted in a “genetic conspiracy” that culminated in the birth of an 11-pound, 23-inch boy named Yao Ming, says a new book titled Operation Yao Ming. Yao, whose father was 6′-10″ and whose mother stood 6′-2″, was quickly funneled into the Communist sports machine. He grew to the extraordinary height of 7′-5″ and became a national icon.

Today, China is said to be applying a similar form of national will to engineering. And, as it did 20 years ago, its desire for success is trickling down from the top. Heads of state are applying their engineering knowledge to a desire for the country’s biggest companies to “get more than mere pennies on the dollar” for the products created there. By developing intellectual property, instead of merely specializing in knock-offs of existing designs, Chinese officials hope to grab a bigger share of every economic pie, much as Microsoft does in the U.S.

 Interest in engineering among American students is dwindling, particularly at the Ph.D. level, where 51 percent of the students are now foreign-born. Moreover, applications to U.S. engineering schools are down 60 percent from China and 40 percent from India during the last two years, suggesting that our foreign spigot may be running dry.

For many, the most frustrating part of the entire phenomenon is engineering’s lack of appeal among American-born students. A combination of factors—salaries and public image, as well as offshoring of jobs to Asia—has made engineering appear undesirable to high school kids who might otherwise choose it as a career path. Add to that the fact that it’s generally recognized as the toughest undergraduate curriculum in American education, and that many of its students increasingly see their college experience as an extraordinary grind, and the result is that worst of all cultural images: uncoolness.

Read the full article here

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