July 2011

Investing in future innovators

BIO releases best practices recommendations for improving STEM education in the U.S. 

In 2005, in response to a request from a bipartisan group of U.S. legislators, the National Academies of Sciences issued a report titled “Rising above the gathering storm: energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future.” The “gathering storm” report, as it commonly became known, evaluated the nation’s standing in what it called the “principal ingredients of innovation and competitiveness – Knowledge Capital, Human Capital, and the existence of a creative ‘Ecosystem.’” Its findings painted a worrying picture of America’s ability to keep pace with the global science and technology market and emphasized that “the most pervasive concern was considered to be the state of the United States K – 12 education, which on average is a laggard among industrial economies.”

Show them the science 

In recognition of this concern, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, in conjunction with Battelle, a global leader in innovative research, recently released a report containing recommendations for best practices in elementary and secondary science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. The report, “Bioscience education: examples of innovative science education programs in the United States,” gives examples of state-administered STEM programs in which BIO sees promise through its ongoing evaluation of bioscience education in the United States.

The BIO report details six areas that have demonstrated effectiveness:

  • • implementing state-wide bioscience education standards,
  • • developing special state schools or programs in STEM education,
  • • encouraging teacher quality and preparation,
  • • providing opportunities for experiential learning and career awareness,
  • • supporting mobile lab programs, and
  • • maintaining bioscience education support organizations for schools and states.

In effect, the BIO recommendations are all about exposing kids to science in a coherent yet engaging manner and even encouraging them to think about becoming scientists someday. “Many students leave high school without having learned basic biology principles,” the BIO report states, “and even fewer are excited enough by the sciences to pursue them in higher education or as a career.”

The report also gives examples of the recommended bioscience education best practices at work, citing specific initiatives and programs by state. It’s no surprise that the states with the highest numbers of effective STEM education programs are Maryland, Massachusetts and California – places that already are hotbeds of scientific innovation. A thriving biotechnology industry tends to make a larger investment in bioscience education, thereby contributing to the human capital component cited in the “gathering storm” report. This type of circular relationship is good for biotech companies, schools and especially the kids who reap the benefits of early exposure to STEM. And because funding bioscience education is especially difficult at present – state and local governments are constrained by tight budgets and other priorities, and the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and America COMPETES Act are set to expire soon – schools are more dependent on the biotechnology industry than ever. But biotech companies tend to cluster geographically; states with a weaker biotech presence tend to lag behind in terms of bioscience education too.

A call to action

According to BIO, comprehensive bioscience education is just one aspect of creating a favorable environment for a thriving biotechnology community. An incubator for innovation, such as a university, where groundbreaking research is performed, often is where small companies begin to take shape. Access to capital also is important so startups can get their feet off the ground. And being business-friendly helps – states that provide tax breaks for small companies, for example, tend to have a more developed biotechnology sector. But a skilled and educated workforce is essential for building the biotechnology industry locally. “Without an increase in children and young adults pursuing the STEM disciplines, the U.S. bioscience industry will be forced to look abroad for competent workers,” noted BIO President and CEO James Greenwood in a press release.

Greenwood’s statement conveys a sense of urgency about the state of bioscience education in America – as does the BIO report itself. “Where the country leads in scientific and industry development, it is trailing many developed nations in the educational attainment of its workforce,” it states. “This poses a very real threat to the nation’s leadership position in the coming decade.” Even more sobering is the National Academies of Sciences’ follow-up report, “Rising above the gathering storm, revisited,” which assesses changes in the nation’s competitiveness outlook in the five years since the original “gathering storm” document was issued. The 2010 report observes that there has been little improvement in the public school system, particularly in STEM education, and bluntly notes, “The Gathering Storm increasingly appears to be a Category 5.”

Leslie ChinnLeslie W. Chinn (leslie.chinn@gmail.com) is an ORISE fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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