President Obama on STEM Education

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President Obama spoke for 20 minutes yesterday at the fifth White House Science Fair. In addition to highlighting the projects of several of the 100 participating students, Obama made three announcements regarding access to broadband services, new private-sector commitments of $240 million for STEM education programs, and initiatives to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

In conjunction with this event, the White House released a six-page fact sheet outlining a broad range of programs and actions by the federal government, philanthropies, businesses, youth-serving organizations, associations, universities, and other organizations to support STEM education.

Excerpts from the President’s address follow:

. . . these young scientists and engineers teach us something beyond the specific topics that they’re exploring. They teach us how to question assumptions; to wonder why something is the way it is, and how we can make it better. And they remind us that there’s always something more to learn, and to try, and to discover, and to imagine -- and that it’s never too early, or too late to create or discover something new.

That’s why we love science. It’s more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world, and to share this accumulated knowledge. It’s a mindset that says we that can use reason and logic and honest inquiry to reach new conclusions and solve big problems. And that’s what we are celebrating here today with these amazing young people.

Later in his speech, Obama said:

So I want to congratulate all of you for your remarkable achievements. You’ve made a lot of people proud -- your parents, your teachers, your friends, your mentors. And as President, I’m proud of you, because America is going to be stronger and smarter and healthier, and a much more interesting place because of you.

But it’s not enough for our country just to be proud of you. We’ve also got to support you. We’ve got to make sure that young people like you are going to keep on having what you need to discover and experiment and to innovate. So I’ve got three announcements to make that really were already kind of in the works before I met you guys, but it’s a pretty good occasion to announce them because you’re so inspiring.

First -- four years ago, I set a national goal to provide 98 percent of Americans with high-speed wireless Internet so that any young scientist or entrepreneur could access the world’s information. Today, I can announce that we have achieved that goal, and we did it ahead of schedule. That’s a big deal.

Second, to make sure that we keep expanding broadband across the country, I’m creating a new team called the Broadband Opportunity Council, made up of leaders across government, who will work with business and communities to invest in next-generation Internet nationwide. Because this not just going to be a key for your ability to learn and create; it’s also a key for America’s ability to compete and lead in the world.

Number three -- no young person in America should miss out on the chance to excel in these fields just because they don’t have the resources. So, five years ago, we launched a campaign called ‘Educate to Innovate,’ to help more of our students explore science, technology, engineering and math. Today, I’m pleased to announce $240 million in new contributions from businesses, from schools, from foundations across the country to help kids learn in these STEM fields. So we are very, very proud to make that announcement.

Corporations have pledged to help expand high-quality science and technology education to more than 1.5 million students. More than 120 universities have pledged to help train 20,000 new engineers to tackle the toughest challenges of this century. Foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Gates Foundation, and the Simons Foundation, will support scientists early in their careers with mentoring and funding. And, all told, these new commitments bring our grand total up to $1 billion in commitments to our kids since we first got this initiative started five years ago.

And I was talking to some of the folks who are helping to finance our efforts, and one of the things that they’ve discovered is that it’s not enough just to talk about STEM. Part of what’s important to do is also to recognize that what you do in math and engineering and science has a purpose to it; that there are huge challenges that we have to solve in how we have clean energy, and how to we clean up our environment, and how do we solve crippling diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. And when we give students the inspiration not just that math and science are inherently interesting, and technology and engineering are inherently interesting, but there’s actual problems to solve, it turns out that young people, they rise to the challenge. And that’s what’s so exciting about it.

We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM. We want to make sure everybody is involved. We want to increase the diversity of STEM programs, as well. And that’s been a theme of this science fair. We get the most out of all our nation’s talent -- and that means reaching out to boys and girls, men and women of all races and all backgrounds. Science is for all of us. And we want our classrooms and labs and workplaces and media to reflect that.

And this is something that Megan Smith, our Chief Technology Officer, is really keen about. Part of the problem is we don’t tell the stories enough of the incredible scientists and inventors along the way who are women, or people of color, and as a consequence, people don’t see themselves as potential scientists. Except the good news is these young women and African American and Latino and Asian American folks, young people who are here today -- you guys certainly see yourselves as scientists. So you’re helping to inspire your classmates and kids who are coming up behind you to pursue these dreams as well. And that’s what’s so exciting.

Because the United States has always been a place that loves science. We’ve always been obsessed with tinkering and discovering and inventing and pushing the very boundaries of what’s possible. That’s who we are. It’s in our DNA. Technological discovery helped us become the world’s greatest economic power. Scientific and medical breakthroughs helped us become the greatest source of hope around the world. And that’s not just our past, that’s also our future, because of amazing young people like this.

So I want to thank you for inspiring me. You got me off to a good start today. Keep exploring. Keep dreaming. Keep asking why. Don’t settle for what you already know. Never stop believing in the power of your ideas, your imagination, your hard work to change the world.

And to all the adults in the room, and to any members of Congress who might be listening, just think about . . . [Rep.] Eddie Bernice Johnson is here, an outstanding member of Congress, who’s a big support of STEM education. Just remember, all these young people -- to continue to pursue the research that might bring about a new clean energy source, or might cure a disease, a lot of them are going to need the capacity to get research positions and fellowships and grants. And that, particularly when it comes to basic research, has typically been funded by the federal government. And my federal budget promotes a significant increase in the kinds of research that needs to happen. Unfortunately, some of the budgets coming out of Congress don’t make those same commitments.

So it’s not enough for us to just lift up young people and say, great job, way to go. You also have to have labs to go to, and you’ve got to be able to support yourself while you’re doing this amazing research. And that involves us as a society making the kind of investments that are going to be necessary for us to continue to innovate for many, many years to come.


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