SAN JOSE, Calif. The US Department of Commerce is spearheading a voluntary marketing campaign in an effort to combat declining interest in science and engineering among young people. A range of advertisements point to a web site aimed at sparking interest in innovation among pre-teen children.
Industry observers said the move is a step in the right direction at a time when disciplines in engineering face declining enrollments in the US. However, some took the lack of funding for the marketing campaign as a sign the government could do more to address the problem.
The campaign includes television, radio, outdoor and Web ads that show children creating inventions to solve everyday problems. The ads point to a new Web site, www.InventNow.org aimed at children between the ages of 8 and 11. The site features interactive games, letting children explore areas such as space, sports, design and entertainment.
The government is distributing the ads as public service announcements to 28,000 media outlets this week. The ads will air and run in advertising time and space donated by the media.
"In an innovation-driven economy, the key to our future success and competitiveness lies in making sure we are sharing America's culture of innovation with our young people," said Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez in a prepared statement. "In doing so, we will prepare them to compete more effectively in the global marketplace and ensure that the United States maintains our global economic leadership," he added.
"We hope that children who watch these ads will want to become more inventive; explore math, science and other creative fields," said Jon Dudas, director of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in a statement.
The voluntary campaign comes at a time when interest in math and science-related education has been on the wane in the US. "We are at a low point of interest in computer science," said Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research in a recent keynote address.
Rashid indicated a sharp decline since 2001 in college undergraduates choosing computer science as a major. The fall off is a sign the number of PhD candidates in computing in the US could be slashed in half by 2010, he said.
"Jobs will go begging in the next few years because we don't have the people willing to take on field," said Rashid who chairs a task force under the Computing Research Association that is studying how to improve the perception of computer science.
Many engineers in the field point to the shift to hiring engineers and other technology specialists overseas as a major part of the problem. Microsoft, for example, recently opened a new R&D center in Bangalore and is hiring so rapidly in its Beijing R&D center it could soon employ more researchers than its Redmond, Washington, site.
Rashid "and many other US companies went overseas to higher programmers in India and engineers in China. Intelligent people who have a choice
will not go into a field that is declining and has a glut of workers," said one engineer in an email comment.
"My son would have made a great engineer, but I discouraged him from
studying engineering due to the poor outlook this industry has in the
US," added the engineer who asked to remain anonymous.
"The only shortage is of programmers who are willing to work for third
world wages in a first world country," said another engineer via email.
Another aspect of the problem is that the US government has cut back federal funding for basic R&D in fields such as computer science. Researchers such as Rashid have been vocal about encouraging greater government investment in basic R&D for the last several years.
As part of a broad initiative, the USPTO and the non-profit National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation
behind the current marketing campaign also support a summer camp and a club for young inventors.
In 2007, more than 60,000 students will attend Camp Invention in 47 states. Club Invention is an after-school program directed by the Hall of Fame that extends scientific inquiry-based education to after-school sites.