A new nationwide survey of minority parents underscores concerns that the United States risks losing its competitive edge unless more women and minority students pursue careers in science and engineering.
The under-representation of women, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans in science and engineering fields has been well documented. At the same time, fewer students are pursuing careers in those fields.
The situation has led the National Science Foundation to warn that U.S. leadership in science and engineering could be threatened unless personnel trends change.
Some experts believe that the United States can remain competitive by encouraging more girls and under-represented minorities to study science and engineering.
The new survey by the Bayer Corporation focuses on parental attitudes towards science education and finds that 90 percent of those surveyed think their children can do well in science. But spokesperson Mae Jemison says the survey also found a bias that may discourage young women from considering science studies.
"Parents thought that there were greater challenges to girls in science, about a 10 percent spread. They also were less confident about girls doing as well in sciences, that is, their daughters doing well, than their sons," she said.
According to the survey's findings, misunderstanding about educational requirements are another obstacle. Ms. Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, says 50 percent of the parents surveyed thought advanced degrees were necessary for jobs in science and engineering fields.
"They did not recognize, for instance, that the person who dressed me in my space shuttle suit, who took care of all my equipment, that is a science and engineering career and they did not have a college degree, but they were science literate," she noted.
Still, the 1,000 parents surveyed said science education, particularly in elementary school, is key to ensuring that more women and minorities enter science and engineering fields. Ms. Jemison says the majority of the parents recommended a more hands-on approach to science education, helping students learn science concepts instead of facts and figures.
"The overwhelming majority of parents said science needs to be taught hands-on," she explained. "That is, you need to wire a flashlight in order to understand electricity. They also recommended that science get more emphasis in the classroom. They also made recommendations that the scientific industry get the word out more about the jobs and opportunities there are in the science fields and that you do not require a Ph.D. to do everything."
The survey was sponsored by the Bayer Corporation as part of its program called Making Science Make Sense. The program encourages scientists working for the healthcare corporation to volunteer in their local communities, working with students and teachers in schools, conducting experiments, and serving as judges at science fairs.
Bayer company spokesperson Sarah Toulouse says more than 1,000 employee volunteers currently participate in the program. She says one popular experiment uses one of the Bayer Corporation's best-known products, the antacid tablet Alka Seltzer, to teach children about pressure and chemical reactions.
"We give them a canister and we fill it up with a little bit of water and we have them drop a piece of the Alka Seltzer tablet into the film canister, put the lid on the top, shake it up a little bit," she said. "They can experiment to see how high the film canister goes based on how much water they put into it or how much Alka Seltzer they put into it. So they really have to think like a scientist and observe what happened and make predictions and evaluate what they see".
Ms. Toulouse says the Bayer Corporation hopes the survey results will lead to a national forum to encourage science education and parent participation.