16 February 2012

The Demographics Of America's Top Scientific Talent

This year's 40 Intel Science Talent Search Finalists have been announced (none were from Colorado this year). The contest is the nation's premiere science fair for U.S. high school students. Finalists are typically doing work worthy of a PhD dissertation in its significance and quality, although not necessarily in its length and the depth with which the literature in the field is reviewed.

Forty percent of the finalists are female, a skew to be sure, but hardly a convincing demonstration of the hypothesis that an extreme levels of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) performance should be dramatically more gender skewed than the more pedestrian levels of STEM competence one might expect, for example, in an overall sample of undergraduate STEM majors, where the gender mix for the category as a whole is fairly similar. And, of course, in a sample of just forty high school students chosen at random, a certain amount of gender skew isn't unsurprising. Forty percent is statistically significant, and the skew would be substantiated if one bundled a decade of finalists to get a more statistically significant sample, but it isn't that extreme.

Seventy percent of the finalists are at least half South Asian or East Asian ethnicity, compared to about 4.3% of children aged 5-17 in the United States. One is Hispanic (who is bilingual in Spanish and English) and the other eleven are white (including at least one child of recent Russian immigrants).

Ten live on the Pacific Coast: Nine from California (eight are Asian) and one in Washington State (a white Russian immigrant). Seventeen live in the Northeast Corridor from the Washington D.C. metro area to Boston metro area (twelve are Asian). Five live in Southern states outside the Washington D.C. metro area (three are Asian and one is Hispanic). Eight live in the Midwest (five are Asian). None live in the Mountain West, Alaska or Hawaii. For what it is worth, almost all live within a two hour drive of an ocean or Great Lake, and most live within a half an hour's drive of an ocean.

Given the fact that a greatly disproportionate share of immigration from Asia is based on work related visas in the most demanding parts of the science, mathematics, computer science, engineering and medical fields, in subdisciplines where employers assert that there is not a single person qualified and available in the United States to do the work, it is not too surprising that the cream of the crop of the nation's scientific talent among high school students draws from these immigrant communities.

While private high schools, including one student from a prestigous residential prep school, are not unrepresented in the list, most attend suburban public schools or urban public schools of choice of some kind.

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