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.
Substantive data is available about per capita production of scientists by developed and developing countries in the world. If we look at this data, the mobility of this population, factors that attract that mobile population, and the impact of the mobility are intriguing. Even more intriguing is how and how much countries are investing on STEM education and research. And finally, the gaps and dead ends that affect the movements of STEM students in and out of countries and levels of education are the most intriguing. In this post, I want to reflect on what lessons (and warning) the above phenomena may contain for academic institutions and educators.
Let me start by briefly commenting on the Sputnik Moment metaphor from an educational point of view. The first quote above is from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1958 State of the Union Address, which is now remembered for highlighting what has come to be known as the “Sputnik Moment.” The most significant context of Eisenhower’s address was Russia’s launching of Sputnik, the first satellite, into space; but the address highlighted, as significantly as anything else, a national urgency for investing in science education, for networking and sharing scientific knowledge with friendly nations, and for focusing on a long term vision toward maintaining the United States’ leadership in the world through advancements in science. Education was no small deal in that vision; it was the centerpiece of it.
During the single year that followed Eisenhower’s request for Congress to approve a six-fold increase in funding for science education (which was made toward the end of the speech), the United States made the following historic achievements: 1) establish NASA, a scientific organization that has since shaped science and society in many and unprecedented ways; 2) launch its first satellite, making it possible to do such incredible things as draw accurate maps of earth’s surface from space; 3) fly the first passenger jet airliner, changing the history of international travel; and, perhaps most importantly, 4) invent the microchip, a technology that has since revolutionized more domains of human life and society than any other single invention. 
It may seem that the President made the speech, the nation invested a lot of resources in science and technology, and big results were reaped within a year. But as Eisenhower stated by using an intriguing diplomatic language—that the real problem is not our strength today but the need to ensure strength tomorrow—the real challenge had to do with long term planning, investing, and taking action to ensure the US continued to lead the world in scientific advancements and thereby in other domains.
The Educational Sputnik Moment: To return to the educational perspective, most references to the Sputnik moment focus on the arms race itself and the technology behind it, that is certainly the key issue; however, in a significant way, the Sputnik moment was also a realization that only long term educational planning could help the nation to stay ahead of the rest of the world in any sphere. The point about education occurs as one of eight specific strategies that Eisenhower outlined for attaining “security and peace”; but in the long view of history, this particular solution could have undergirded all the other advancements in science and technology.
By using the term “Sputnik Moment” with an explicit reference to scientific research and education in his 2011 SOTU Address, President Obama foregrounded education as a factor in the original event. And he also popularized the term again–which we could call the Sputnik Moment 2.0–in the highly appropriate context of scientific education and research. Needless to say, the tough economic times have dealt a blow to the advancements in scientific research and the production of science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) professionals. Fortunately, the focus of the nation has increased on the STEM field (indeed so to the point that educators in other fields are worried about a harmful imbalance in that focus). Just as Eisenhower felt the need to propose a five-fold increase in the investment toward “stimulating and improving” science and technology education toward the end of his 1958 address, a similar priority for investment of resource in science education seems necessary again.
Obviously, this wouldn’t be the same kind of moment if we consider the magnitude of “real” threat due to a rising and hostile Russia of the 1950s; but there may indeed be a version 2 of the 1958 situation if we consider just the educational scenario on a global scale coupled with the effect of the tough economic situations on higher education in the sciences in the US.
I’ve been reading about global student mobility for some time, and when I somehow branched into the data, news reports, and scholarship about STEM education on a global scale, I thought I should try to articulate a few thoughts just to see if I have a point to make! To be serious, the data and discourse on the subject seems extremely worth paying attention to for those who are invested in the education of STEM professionals. Understanding these patterns seems essential and useful toward developing educational and professional development programs at the level of the university, state, and the nation at large.
Some Global Numbers: Let us look at a few numbers taken from national and global statistics about STEM education from a global perspective. Compared to the time of the original Sputnik Moment, US population has grown two-fold; but the number of STEM professionals has increased thirty fold.  That is a very impressive number in itself. However, if we look at the figure on a global scale, the US faces a tough competition from the least expected countries like China. To add a historical perspective to this comparison, China’s population has increased three-fold since the 1950s, but the country produces 150 times more scientists than it used to back then. These two comparisons would still not look striking if it was not for a third fact: Whereas US produces about 10% of the world’s total STEM graduates today, China produces 23% of the world’s total.  Put simply, the US indeed seems to face a “Sputnik moment”- like challenge in maintaining its lead on per capita STEM professionals in the world. In fact, the dramatic rise in the volume, importance, and competitiveness in STEM education on a global scale could further lead to a competition in the quality of STEM professionals, as some reports have already started indicating.
Of course, the picture will be different if we plug these numbers into different arguments. In response to the ongoing “crisis” about the production of STEM professionals in the US, there have been quite a few news reports attempting to show that there is actually no shortage of STEM products. But if we just focus on the nonnative English speaking STEM students and their mobility within and into the professions, there is a real challenge that deserves to be addressed. If we focus on these students’ lack of academic and professional soft skills, then the blind spots and bottle necks in the system–from entry and transition to academic development and professional readiness for the job market–become more clear.
For teachers specializing in the education of scientists and engineers (where I consider myself as belonging in terms of my specialization), the above challenge promises tremendous opportunities for helping improve STEM education. As a teacher and scholar of language, writing, and communication, I am interested in the quality of STEM education (rather than just the numbers); I study whether and how STEM programs and universities incorporate “soft skills” in their students’ education. The scholarship in my field of writing studies has long shown that the hyper-specialization of the academic fields affects STEM graduate students adversely. The research that I did for my dissertation indicated that the lack of focus on soft skills in engineering programs affects foreign-born graduate students even more severely. And the fact that these students are becoming a majority in at the graduate level raises even more serious issues.
International STEM Graduate Students: On a national scale, half of more than the 700,000 international students who come to the US every year go into STEM fields, and almost two third of that half pursue graduate degrees. Due to the lack of general education skills, these graduate students in particular suffer the “academic gap” during their study; in fact, because they tend to focus on just the academic milestones, they graduate with significant deficiency in their professional skills.
As pointed out by researchers Anthony Carnevale and Nicole Smith of the Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, foreign-born graduate students tend to remain in academe, leaving the job market of other fields where their knowledge and skills have greater demand and rewards to the native-born counterparts. In order to tackle the above blind spots and bottlenecks, US universities must address the challenges created by academic transition and lag in development of soft skills among foreign-born students in particular and all STEM students in general.
It must be added that many of the gaps in the academic and professional development of foreign-born STEM students also affect the native-born population; the effect is just a little more intense for the former group. This means that when support mechanisms are developed for the first group, those mechanisms can also be used or adapted in the service of the second group.
What it Looks Like: To conclude, here is an image that I created in order to try to represent the blind spots and bottlenecks that I described above.
This is a clunky representation, and I’m yet to plug in the numbers in a lot of places (to be updated), but even with a poor graphic, the patterns of STEM students’ internal mobility in the US seems striking enough to warrant serious attention by educational policy makers and educators alike.