Our real problem, then, is not our strength today; it is rather the vital necessity of action today to ensure our strength tomorrow. – President Dwight Eisenhower, State of the Union Address,1958 
. . .after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation. . . . This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. – Present Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 2011 
“STEM” is perhaps the most popular academic buzzword of our time, as well as perhaps the most popular academic term in US politics and policy. But in the debate about the shortage of engineers and scientists in the US, primary attention is given to the issue of demand and supply, and (unfortunately) a more critical issue is often left out. The issue of the quality of education received by our future scientists and engineers is overshadowed by the discussion of their quantity. The undue emphasis on numbers has created the worst blind spot in the discourse of STEM crisis from a global perspective: we’re competing to produce “more” scientists while forgetting to ask if we’re producing the best scientists. This question of quality has to do with academic success, professional development, transfer of skills from academe to the professions outside, and adaptability to changing and increasingly globalized workforce.
In order to produce well-rounded scientists and engineers who are locally successful and globally competitive, US universities must address the bottle necks, blind spots, and speed bumps along the path of academic and professional development for STEM students. And in light of the fact that “foreign-born” students outnumber their local US counterparts in the STEM fields, they must also pay attention to the challenges faced by this majority–especially at the graduate level.
Return of the Term: The term “Sputnik Moment” came back to currency when President Obama used it for suggesting that the US is facing a similar challenge from rapidly advancing countries against staying ahead in science and technology. But while the metaphor helped to draw tremendous attention–leading to a number of Congressional hearings, a flurry of media reports, and conversations within universities–the conversation did not reach far enough into issues of education. Personally, I found return of the metaphor fascinating because I was finishing up my dissertation on engineering writing, focusing on the academic and professional development gap among engineering students. Continue reading
Karla raised her hand during the first class in an upper division research and writing course I taught last semester: “I have written eleven pages of my thesis already!” She was very proud about being a “good writer” (in her own words).
Tamal, another bright student in that class, had done so much research on the topic he’d chosen that he surprised me when he came for the first one-on-one conference to my office. He seemed to know everything about the ongoing Eurozone financial crisis.
But in the same class, there was another fairly talented student, Yin, who was so scared of a “writing” class that she went to my colleague who was teaching a co-requisite course to share her anxiety. Continue reading
If you are an international student, you may find this post worth reading.
Let me start with an anecdote.
My first class in an American university was not fun. It was on Thursday evenings, 7-10pm. Week after week, I failed to understand why the teacher wouldn’t teach! She would come to class, sit on the table, then ask, “so, what do you think?” And an older man in the back would start speaking. As someone who had not only studied but also taught a similar course back home, I had a significant amount of knowledge on the subject. This made it worse. The gentleman would continue to share his thoughts and responses and opinions and ideas but without much reference and (honestly) understanding of the text; there were two women who took occasional turns, but they didn’t contribute any depth either. But the teacher would just shake her head, and add more questions. One hour, two hours, almost three hours, and she would not start teaching. Three hours, the class is over, without her teaching anything. The other two courses I was taking were not so bad, but this one, I was totally lost.
After a few weeks, a light went off in my head. This approach to teaching was far better than what I knew before: lecturing forever. Theoretically, I definitely knew about the “student-centered” approach to teaching. But I had never thought that you could really put it into practice to the point of almost “not teaching” at all! Continue reading
“Most international graduate students accepted into U.S. universities,” says author Virginia Gonzalez, “are the cream of the crop from their home countries. Nevertheless, their adaptation to the new academic culture in the U.S. can be an arduous task.”
Indeed, the very fact that international students get selected by US universities is most often a proof that they are among the best students in their home countries. Continue reading
The entry and dramatic increase of “international” or foreign-educated students in the US academy has posed a tremendous and sustained challenge to academic discourse (and thereby policy and practices) because this is a very diverse group. In the absence of (or rather refusal to adopt) better approaches, the US academy has so far tried to tackle the complex challenge of defining the stunningly diverse group known as international students in terms of what they “lack.” The challenge of defining international students is further complicated by the fact that most international students are also “nonnative” English speaking (NNES) individuals, so the issues of the two largely overlapping bodies are conflated together. The result of the two problems above is a fascinating persistence in policy and practice to define international students as learners with “language problems” more than anything else. Continue reading
In 2009, an Australian nurse gave a 79-year-old patient dishwashing detergent instead of his medication. That crazy person was an international student from India who had just graduated from a nursing school. An investigation, which later caused the nurse to lose his license, showed that he was “unable to read the label” on the container. It is possible that a college-educated person couldn’t “read” the label on a container. And I can believe that professionals who determined that cause were correct. But I cannot help wondering if the whole investigation was driven by an ideologically shaped view of the whole situation.
To explain the above point about ideological framing of the incident–and to consider the implications of that framing for international students across the world–let us look at how the incident was used in an investigative report about the degradation of Australian higher education by an Australian TV. Titled “Degrees of Deception,” the documentary presented the Indian nurse’s case as a perfect example of what is wrong with higher education in the country. Continue reading
For quite some time, I’ve seen an interesting pattern among students who said that they were “good writers,” but unfortunately they don’t receive a good grade at the end of the semester, which I wish they did. As a writing teacher, I don’t want these confident writers to change their self-perception in any of my writing courses. But I have to grade all students on the basis of the assignment’s instructions and objectives as they are specified in advance.
The case of a self-described “good writer,” Brian (not his real name), has been the most memorable one among those of students who somehow couldn’t write well in spite of their claims and, presumably, backgrounds as good writers. Continue reading
It’s not surprising that the US is a leading competitor in international student enrollment, but if you start looking into the figures, some things are quite surprising. Here are some.
In 2010/11, the number of international students in the U.S. reached a record high of 723,277, with a 32% increase since 2000/01. (IIE, Open Doors Report, 2011). In 1955, this number was about 48,000! Currently, the tiny nation of Nepal, which is No. 11 on the world list for international students to the U.S.—plus, okay, my home country—sends about a fourth of that number of students every year; China alone sends almost three times as many students today. Continue reading