Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced an initiative Thursday to promote "science literacy" and boost the number of American students interested in becoming scientists and engineers.
The program will award scholarships at national labs for math and science teachers. It also will require the 17 labs to host a total of 2,000 fifth- and eighth-graders for at least one day each year.
The Energy Department and the labs will also sponsor an annual science expo, "science appreciation days" and career days, where scientists will visit public schools.
The programs will focus on students and teachers in middle school — a time when American children's curiosity in math and science often wanes.
According to an international study completed in 1999, U.S. fourth-graders ranked among the world's best in math and science. By eighth grade, they fell below the international average. By 12th grade, they trailed students in nearly every other industrialized country.
Abraham said the department has not yet figured the program's cost, but he expected the country's national labs to contribute money, equipment and employees.
It's unclear whether the initiative will stem years of declining enrollment in science programs among American college students, and it's unlikely to change a broader concern: Engineering and science graduates from India, China, Russia and other developing nations dramatically outnumber those from U.S. universities.
Abraham said the consequences of the declining number of American scientists could be dire — both to the U.S. government and to corporate America.
"Now and for the foreseeable future, it is a simple fact that work will migrate to the nation with the most skilled work force," Abraham told about 300 people at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.