STEM Education: An Update and Overview of Policy Discussions

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Publication date: 
1 February 2013

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education is a subject of much discussion in Washington. The National Research Council report, Research Universities and the Future of America, was the topic of two hearings in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in the last Congress and continues to generate discussion among policy makers. Scientific professional societies, including the American Physical Society, American Association of Physics Teachers both AIP Member Societies, and the American Chemical Society, have issued reports including those on the status of graduate education in their disciplines. These and other recent reports have generated momentum and an increased desire among decision makers to take action to improve US STEM education.

The National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education (CoSTEM), established by the America COMPETES Act of 2010, created an inventory in February 2012 of Federal STEM education activities and developed a 5-year strategic Federal STEM education plan. The purpose of CoSTEM is to coordinate Federal programs and activities relating to STEM education. This strategic plan will likely continue to be a resource to the Obama Administration as it continues to focus on STEM education issues.

The President issued a call to action in his 2011 State of the Union address to train 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next 10 years to improve access to and the quality of STEM education. This initiative began as a recommendation in a report, Prepare and Inspire, produced by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and has now become a collaborative movement, known as 100kin10, composed of over 100 partner organizations that have and will continue to commit to increasing the number of STEM teachers. Increasing the number of new teachers is a primary focus, however these organizations recognize the need to continue to support existing STEM teachers while increasing the number of new teachers.

Broadening participation in STEM education was highlighted in a PCAST report, Engage to Excel, and continues to be a focus for the Administration and Congress. The Administration has formally designated increasing the number of students who receive undergraduate degrees in STEM by 1 million over the next decade as a cross agency priority goal, one that encourages federal agencies to share best practices and partner in their missions.

The Administration announced areas of focus for this initiative including: “identifying and implementing evidence-based practices to improve STEM teaching and to attract students to STEM courses; providing more opportunities for students to engage in meaningful STEM activities through research experiences, especially in their first two years of college; addressing the mathematics preparation gap that students face when they arrive at college, using evidence-based practices that generate improved results; providing educational opportunities and supports for women and historically underrepresented minorities; and identifying and supporting innovation in higher education.”

A topic at the forefront of federal STEM education debates is the quality of STEM teachers. On this issue the Administration announced the President’s plan to create a STEM Master Teacher Corps, beginning in 50 locations throughout the US, each with 50 Master Teachers. The goal of this Master Teacher Corps is to expand the number of STEM teachers to 10,000 in the next four years. The President’s FY2013 budget request included funding for this initiative and it is likely that the FY2014 budget request will be supportive of increasing the number of STEM teachers. A Senate and House bill on this issue were introduced in the last Congress and may be re-introduced in this new session.

The America COMPTETES Act of 2010 included provisions regarding federal agency efforts to educate STEM professionals. Significant portions of this legislation were designated for STEM programs. Some of those provisions include establishing a STEM training grant program and programs to increase the number of students who take Advanced Placement courses and who receive International Baccalaureate High School diplomas. The legislation also called for the establishment of a panel of experts to provide information to strengthen the teaching and learning of STEM fields at the elementary and secondary level. A section of the legislation focused on mathematics education to improve the number of students who reach and exceed grade level academic achievement. The Act authorized funding for STEM education programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institutes of Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy. Issues surrounding the reauthorization of COMPETES will likely be the subject of hearings in Congress in 2013.

The bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that was proposed to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in 2011 included some provisions relating to STEM Education. However, the House versions of the ESEA bill were notably absent of references to science education. Whether the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be reauthorized in this new Congress remains a question.

As the Administration and Congress prepare to take up immigration reform, a subset of that discussion includes the subject of immigration for those who have backgrounds in STEM fields. The President’s proposal includes a provision to “staple green cards to advanced STEM diplomas.” The House approved a STEM immigration reform bill in the last session and there appears to be bipartisan consensus on the benefit of retaining STEM foreign graduates.