Science, technology and engineering in America is now dependent on foreign students.

Data from a Pew Research Center analysis of ICE data secured through a Freedom of Information Act request found that between 2004 and 2016, almost one and a half million foreign students graduating from U.S. universities were authorized to remain in the U.S. for employment in science. More than half were from Asia. While some citizens know of the H1B visa program for hiring highly skilled foreign workers, these students work under the federal Optional Practical Training program. Between 2008 and 2016, new foreign student enrollments on F-1 visas doubled and OPT employments went up fourfold!

Compared to all other developed countries, the American public and American students not majoring in a science field, are simply science illiterate. What could turn this around?

• The American public school curriculum must increase science coursework from 5 percent to 20 percent of the K-12 curriculum.

• External testing that drives rote teaching-to-the-test must end. Teachers in science fields must pose questions and lead students in problem solving, a strategy that has been reduced by external testing.

• Elementary students beginning in first grade should have substantial class time with elementary science teacher specialists. Youngsters become hooked on science in these early years, but current elementary teachers are mostly science-ignorant and cannot build on students’ natural questions and enthusiasm.    

• Science must return to hands-on classwork. Multi-sensory experiences are the basis for understanding natural phenomena and grasping the meaning of science concepts. No experience, no meaning. Distractions, especially computers and social media, do not belong in the science classroom.

• “Technology” in science consists of microscopes and chemicals and physics equipment. Real well-equipped labs must be re-established. Explanations require experiences. Again, science technology has little to do with computers and cellphones.

• Field trips must be restored. As fewer students come from rural backgrounds or have field experiences, the school must provide more experiences with nature.

• Forty states and the District of Columbia only train shallow one-size-fits-all secondary “science” teachers who take only one to three college courses in each discipline. Only 11 states train high school biology or chemistry or physics or earth science teachers in-depth. Those specific field endorsements require from 30 to 45 credit hours of college coursework and labs in a field. All states should move immediately to educating secondary science teachers in-depth in specific science disciplines.

• Secondary science teacher programs should be housed and managed in the biology, chemistry, physics and earth science departments at U.S. universities. This is the case in many foreign countries, where science teachers are trained alongside science researchers. Science education programs operated by Schools of Education waste time on teaching fads and provide the most minimal science requirements.

• The U.S. must go metric, and go metric now! Metric is the language of physics and chemistry and much of biology. And our students never learn to speak this language of science. Going metric is easy. But if we cannot even get off of the barleycorn system (three barleycorns laid end-to-end equal an inch), we have little chance of making these other substantial changes in science education that are vital to eventually producing a science-literate society.

The flow of foreign students into American universities began a decline this last year. Journal metrics show a dramatic rise in Asian authors and a slow decline from America. If we do not bolster science in K-12 schools immediately, the U.S. will gradually lose first-world status in science.


Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.