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Can U.S. K-12 STEM education learn from the European system?

I've lived in this country for 23 years and even though I am now a U.S. citizen and fully embrace the American lifestyle, there is one aspect of the culture that I don't fully understand -- the education system.

Don't get me wrong; it's amongst the best in the world. However, I don't think it is optimum for turning out highly qualified scientists and engineers, who are critical to keeping this country at the top of the global ladder in technological innovations. Our colleges and universities are second to none in giving students a well-rounded education, but are they getting them ready for "life in the real world?"

I'll never forget a comment that the keynote speaker made at the orientation weekend last summer before my daughter started at Boston College: "We are not preparing your children for a career; but graduating thinkers who will leave this institution and set the world on fire."  To someone who was raised in a different educational milieu, I could not relate to this.

In the UK, when you are 16 years of age, you have to pick three subjects to study in the final two years of high school. At the end of the two years you take Advanced-Level exams in these subjects. During your final year in high school, you apply to a university, declaring your intended major. So as a high school junior you focus on a group of subjects you are interested in and at 18, you pick the subject that is closely related to your chosen profession. Now the argument I hear is that that you don't know what you want to be at 16. It's a valid point, but even if you don't know what career you want to pursue, you at least know what subjects you like.

A similar system with other subtle differences is used in most other European countries. For example, the teaching profession in Europe has achieved a very high status-level, and as a result attracts the brightest science graduates. In Europe, curricula put more emphasis on the practical applications of science subjects. Additionally, there is less importance placed on testing protocol and more on understanding the subject matter.

Comparing the two systems is further complicated by the reality that European countries are more ethnically and linguistically homogeneous than the U.S. These differences in a society dedicated to "mass education" explains in part why the U.S. did so poorly in a 2009 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study that assessed the understanding of science, math by 15-year old students in 70 different countries. In science the U.S. was ranked 23rd, with fourteen European countries ranked higher than us. In math, it was even worse; the U.S. was ranked 29th, with twenty European countries ranked higher.

The U.S. could learn from Europe -- how to teach and test better, while retaining our innovative edge.  As a nation, we still succeed at the top of the science education pyramid-- graduate study and advanced degrees awarded -- but the K-12 student base must be fortified.

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