September 2010

Improving STEM Education

Failure to COMPETE

Specifically responding to the recommendations of the Academies, and building on then-President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, Congress passed the America COMPETES act in 2007.

COMPETES created or restructured a large number of STEM education programs focused on kindergarten through the 12th grade. Based on the recommendation of the Academies, COMPETES authorized the U.S. Department of Education to fund university programs focused on K-12 STEM teacher training at both the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. The department also was authorized to give grants to states and local school boards to expand Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

But, the ambitious programs set forth in COMPETES have failed to become a congressional priority. In 2008, an Academies panel reviewed the country’s response to “Rising Above.” The panel found that several initiatives authorized by COMPETES, including those for teacher training, lacked adequate funding, leaving many programs unfunded and others struggling for existence. Meanwhile, the United States continues to fall behind other countries in terms of both undergraduate and graduate STEM degrees, according to the 2010 version of Science and Engineering Indicators released by the National Science Foundation.

New Efforts

Despite a difficult budgetary situation, many in the U.S. Congress, the administration and elsewhere continue to work to improve STEM education.

Earlier this year, the National Academies Board on Science Education released a preliminary report that attempts to install a new national framework for K-12 science education, with hopes of revising and normalizing current standards and benchmarks used by educators, to raise the level of knowledge attained at each grade. The report aims to shift the disjointed, compartmentalized approach to science pedagogy currently in use to a cohesive agenda that will allow for a continual development of scientific knowledge on a yearly basis.

Furthermore, President Obama has made education a priority. Reflecting the momentum this issue has gained over the past decade, the U.S. Department of Education recently has awarded funds to the Smithsonian Institution to promote science education in school districts nationwide. In addition, the White House’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign is aimed at expanding STEM literacy through awareness and programs outside of the classroom. Meanwhile, the president has encouraged states applying for funds from his “Race to the Top” initiative to increase focus on science education in their proposals.

Even as securing adequate funding for STEM education programs increasingly is in doubt, the full U.S. House of Representatives and a U.S. Senate committee have approved versions of a renewal of COMPETES. Current versions of COMPETES call for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to coordinate federal STEM education policy. Whereas the 2007 version focused extensively on K-12 education, current versions re-examine STEM education beyond high school, changing the way NSF funds graduate student fellowships. The House version even calls for the possible creation of an NSF postdoctoral fellowship program.

Even if passed before the current congressional term expires, there is no guarantee the programs created by COMPETES will be supported adequately. Yet, it does seem that recent efforts have significantly, albeit slowly, changed the inertia of STEM education. And, Newton’s first law tells us what happens to a body in motion.

Kyle M. Brown (kmbrown@asbmb.org) and Geoffrey Hunt (ghunt@asbmb.org) are ASBMB science policy fellows.

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