AMERICA could use another Sputnik. The launch of that Soviet satellite three decades ago sparked a revival of engineering and science in the United States. Now that revival has run out of steam. The Sputnik generation of scientists and teachers is nearing retirement. And there are not enough young scientists and engineers to take their place.
``The whole dynamic is changing more rapidly than we think it is,'' says Bill Elliott, vice president for enrollment at Carnegie Mellon University here. ``There's just not as many bodies in the system anymore.''
One reason is declining interest. Fewer high school students intend to pursue technical careers than four years ago, according to results of the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. More important, the overall college-age population is shrinking. This demographic pinch will intensify through the rest of the century.
Meanwhile, demand for technical people is exploding. By the year 2000, the nation will need 25 percent more engineers, 26 percent more biologists, and a whopping 50 percent more computer scientists and other mathematical and statistical workers, according to the US Labor Department.
The result is a looming shortage of technically trained people. Freshmen enrollments in engineering peaked in the 1982-83 school year and have fallen five years straight. There was a slight uptick in 1988-89, but the total was still 15 percent below the peak year. By 1996, the National Science Foundation predicts a US shortfall of 45,000 technically trained people with undergraduate degrees. By 2010, the deficit will zoom upward to 700,000.
To counter these trends, government, universities, companies, and private groups are scrambling to generate more interest in science and engineering.
``There's general concern that the graduates out of school are not going to have the science and training background to meet the new job needs,'' says John Griffin, vice president of business and technology integration at Battelle, a private contract research organization in Columbus, Ohio.
The solution, according to a wide range of educators, businessmen, and government officials, is increasing the enrollment of minorities and women. Only 6.3 percent of the bachelor's degrees in engineering last year went to blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians. Businesses and universities are trying to change that.
Efforts to reach out to minorities have intensified in the last three years, says George Campbell Jr., president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), a private industry-supported group based in New York. These efforts have met with some success. Of all freshmen enrollments in engineering last year, 12.1 percent were minorities (excluding Asians and Asian-Americans, who have much higher representation). The figure was almost triple the 4.4 percent rate in the 1973-74 school year.
To improve that number even more, educators now realize that they'll have to work with students before they reach high school. For example, only about 10 percent of the minority population in high school take four years of math as well as a chemistry and a physics course. So NACME for the first time last school year has started to put resources in programs from fourth grade to seventh grade.
The situation for women is worse in some ways. ``No one has worked on the women,'' says Betty Vetter, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. Yet from elementary school through college, women encounter obstacles that discourage them from pursuing a technical career. Teachers and counselors steer them away from science and math. Employers don't pay them on an equal scale with men.
If businesses and universities have recognized the problem, they are not particularly optimistic that they can turn the tide.
``We can't exist and have the kind of high-tech society we expect if we don't have these students,'' says J. Lawrence Katz, dean of engineering at Case Institute of Technology at Case Western Reserve.