Science Committee Discusses Engaging Students and the Public in STEM

Publication date

The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a January 9 hearing to discuss engaging students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.  The subcommittee discussed research at the Smithsonian during a January 14 hearing.  The STEM education initiatives under discussion at the January 9 hearing were conducted by private organizations.  Members were interested to learn how the federal government could leverage the resources of private sector STEM education investments.  Improving STEM education activities beyond the scope of those of the federal government has been a longstanding interest of the subcommittee.  Members heard about private sector efforts aimed at strengthening the STEM workforce and the relationship between those and government programs. 

Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN) opened the hearing noting that a National Science Board report concluded “that the science and engineering workforce historically grows faster than the total workforce” though “the last decade has seen much lower growth.”  Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) added, in is opening statement, that “we must persuade our nation’s youth to study science and engineering so they will want to pursue these careers” as he stressed that young adults need the “scientific and mathematic skills to strive and thrive in a technology-based economy.”

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) acknowledged the complexity of problems in U.S. STEM education as he emphasized the importance of partnerships between “the private sector, Federal and state governments, colleges, universities, local school districts, national labs, science museums, zoos and aquaria, and all types of nonprofits.”  Regarding the role of the Federal government in public-private partnerships, he stated “less than half of that [investment] is focused at the K-12 level.  Federal investments in K-12 education overall account for only 10 percent of total U.S. funding for K-12 education, and the federal share of STEM funding is likely much less than 10 percent.”  Of note, he highlighted that “the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the single most important source for research, development, and testing of innovative new models for STEM education.”  Full Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) echoed the role of the NSF as she noted its role as a leader in “developing the most effective and inspiring STEM curricula and programs in and out of the classroom.”

Four witnesses provided testimony about various private sector STEM programs followed by four student witnesses who provided feedback to the subcommittee about STEM programs in which they were participating.  Dean Kamen, Founder and President of DEKA Research and Development Corporation and Founder of FIRST spoke about the private sector’s “need to change our culture” to encourage students to pursue STEM majors in college “and go on to rewarding STEM careers, thereby keeping the United States at the forefront of innovation.”  He advocated for the Subommittee to “support schools, especially underserved schools, to gain access to FIRST” as he highlighted the program’s impacts.

Hadi Partovi, Co-founder and CEO of spoke about the goal of “giving every student in the United States access to computer science as part of their K-12 educational experience.,”  In addition, he discussed developing curriculum, recruiting professional development facilitators, and working with stakeholders and policymakers at the local, state, and federal level to expand access to computer science.  He described partnerships and collaborations with districts on “agreements related to teacher supports and classroom resources.”

Kemi Jona, Professor of Learning Sciences and Computer Science and Director of the Office of STEM Education Partnerships (OSEP) at Northwestern University spoke about OSEP’s role in connecting K-12 teachers and students to STEM resources of Northwestern University.  He described OSTP’s 11 programs focused on “teacher professional development; STEM curriculum development; out-of-school time STEM learning; and the design and integration of learning technologies in the K-12 classroom.”  OSEP informs private sector STEM education initiatives using three models: “catalyzing industrial partnerships with schools,” “aggregating and disseminating statewide STEM education resources and industry engagement,” and using a “modular platform for industry involvement in science, technology, engineering, arts/design, and mathematics education.”

Phil Cornwell, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology spoke of his university’s role in engaging students who have benefited from private sector STEM programs. He spoke about retaining at-risk students and the success of outreach programs as he described two aspects of increasing the number of STEM educated professionals: increasing the graduation rate of students interested in STEM and increasing the number of K-12 students who share an interest in STEM careers. 

Discussions following the first panel of witnesses included successful STEM events, such as the Hour of Code.  Public-private partnerships that provide funding for teachers to lead afterschool STEM activities were described in the context of trying to replicate successful programs.  Faculty professional development opportunities supported by National Science Foundation funding were acknowledged as being successful and Members were interested in discussing STEM retention rates, jobs and access to funding. 

The second panel of witnesses was comprised entirely of students who spoke of their interest in being part of teams that compete in robotics competitions.  They shared stories about their own experiments, including their work on the design phase, as well as their excitement completing robotics projects.  Daniel Nette, a junior at George Mason High School in Falls Church, VA spoke about how “FIRST provides the opportunity to apply hands-on solutions to real challenges.”

Members were interested to hear how the student’s experiences in engineering design influenced their understanding of the business world, from acquiring funding to the support necessary for product development.  The students also described how they would like their robotics teams to be allowed the same access to facilities and resources in school as sports teams and other student groups.

The January 14 hearing to examine the Smithsonian Institution’s (SI) scientific research activities provided subcommittee Members with the opportunity to hear about the multidisciplinary research taking place at the SI.  The SI is “a recognized leader in many areas of scientific research, and houses some of the largest and most acclaimed research programs in their respective fields,” according to a hearing charter prepared for by Republican committee staff.   Bucshon opened the hearing by describing the SI’s nine research centers and numerous research programs at the SI and their role in understanding science, history and culture.  He was interested in hearing from witnesses about the on-going and future activities at the SI.

Lipinski wanted to learn how the Smithsonian “would strengthen the partnerships it has with its 184 affiliate museums and how these local organizations and the communities they serve will continue to benefit from their long-standing partnerships with the federal government.”  Under the Administration’s STEM education proposal, the Smithsonian would take on a new leadership role in federal informal STEM education programs.   Lipinski was also interested in hearing “how the Smithsonian is prioritizing their research and what challenges they have faced during the last few years of budget cutting.”

Three witnesses testified.  G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of The Smithsonian spoke of the SI’s strategic plan that called for a cross-disciplinary approach and collaboration with the federal government.  He provided an overview of the activities at the Centers for Research as he described how SI seeks to share information “with as many people as possible.”  The SI partners with many federal entities and is “an active partner in the broader efforts to coordinate STEM efforts across the federal government.”  The SI also “built collaborations with more than 60 universities across the country,” he stated as he noted that more than 1,300 students participated in internships at SI last year. 

Eva Pell, Under Secretary for Science at the Smithsonian Institution also described the variety of research disciplines represented at SI.  “On land, water or beyond our atmosphere, Smithsonian science is engaged in the world’s greatest challenges,” she stated as she illustrated how SI broadens access and reaches “new audiences by bringing the resources of our museums and research centers to people where they learn and live.”  The SI legacy is one of reanalysis and understanding, “as stewards, scholars, collaborators and conveners, the Smithsonian strives to address important issues in science today.”

Kirk Johnson, Director of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) referred to the museum’s collection as “an irreplaceable scientific tool that is used by more than 11,000 scientists each year” and explained how scientific research that operates behind the scenes of the public programs is organized into thematic areas.  The seven departments anthropology, botany, entomology, mineral sciences, invertebrate zoology, paleobiology, and vertebrate zoology departments include the “largest concentration of biodiversity scientists on Earth.”  Johnson noted the collaborations between universities and research centers, the importance of the global network of institutions, and the development of new methods and technologies that is a result of NMNH research.

Questions for witnesses included the unique research conducted at the Smithsonian and how it differs from research conducted in other federal agencies.  The collections and observatories are long-term projects and collaborations were highlighted as elements that allow for the public programs and research conducted by the Institution.  Data management issues including open access, digitization, and crowd-sourcing were also discussed as were the Smithsonian’s unique collaborations with other federal science agencies.  The subcommittee is awaiting the upcoming President’s budget request to see what will be the role of the Smithsonian in the federal STEM education portfolio.