White House Releases STEM Education Strategy

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Publication date: 
11 December 2018
Number: 
130

The Trump administration’s newly released five-year strategic plan for federal STEM education programs calls for an expansion of work-based learning opportunities, increased engagement of underrepresented groups in STEM fields, and improved STEM literacy across the entire U.S. population, with a focus on computational and mathematical skills.

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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine spoke at a White House event marking the release of the federal government’s new strategic plan for STEM education.

(Image credit – NASA / Bill Ingalls)

On Dec. 4, the White House released a statutorily required five-year strategic plan for the federal government’s efforts to promote STEM education. It spells out principles to guide federal programs and states that it also aims to be a “North Star” to guide members of the broader education community.

The report focuses on advancing STEM literacy and work-based learning among all Americans and emphasizes the need for education programs to foster greater inclusivity. It does not, though, prioritize particular federal STEM education programs or discuss in depth the role of such programs in advancing the U.S. scientific enterprise.

The report succeeds a five-year plan for STEM education that the Obama administration released in 2013. Both strategies were developed by the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), an interagency coordination body chaired by the heads of NASA, the National Science Foundation, and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Plan stresses workforce development and STEM literacy

The report identifies three overarching goals to realize a future where “all Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation, and employment.” They are: preparing the STEM workforce for jobs of the future, increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce, and expanding STEM literacy across the population.

The goals are associated with four “pathways to success”: developing and enriching partnerships between educational entities and the communities they serve, engaging students by blending disciplines and making STEM learning “meaningful and inspiring,” building computational literacy, and operating with transparency and accountability using “evidence-based practices and assessments.”

In line with the Trump administration’s focus on career and technical education, the report emphasizes the importance of educational opportunities that are not traditional post-secondary STEM degree programs. These include two-year degrees and apprenticeships, but also a variety of other “lifelong learning” experiences. The report also focuses on general STEM literacy, noting,

Even for those who may never be employed in a STEM-related job, a basic understanding and comfort with STEM and STEM-enabled technology has become a prerequisite for full participation in modern society.

The report outlines recommended federal actions to advance the administration’s goals, such as increasing the number of federal grants that contain “work-based learning partnerships” and “computational thinking” as a selection criterion, supporting STEM educator “upskilling,” and expanding internship and apprenticeship opportunities at federal agencies. More general recommendations call for enhanced collaboration among a wide variety of stakeholders within “STEM ecosystems” such as formal and informal education institutions, employers, credentialing services, faith-based entities, and social service providers.

The report stresses that STEM education can better engage students by focusing on “complex real-world problems" that require transdisciplinary solutions. It observes that STEM education is useful not only for the particular knowledge it conveys, but for the ways of thinking it fosters, arguing,

Modern STEM education imparts not only skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, higher order thinking, design, and inference, but also behavioral competencies such as perseverance, adaptability, cooperation, organization, and responsibility.

The report places a specific emphasis on mathematics and computer education. It describes mathematics as “foundational to success across all STEM fields” and a “gateway” to STEM majors. Noting that U.S. students lag in mathematics in international test scores, the report identifies learning through “experiential, meaningful, and applied contexts” as a promising approach for improving mathematical literacy.

More broadly, the report identifies computational and digital literacy as vital for accessing information and sharing ideas in the 21st century economy. The report thus calls for “computational thinking” to be “an integral element of all education” and for computer science education to remain a “national priority.” It also calls for developing and deploying digital platforms that help underserved and rural communities acquire STEM skills.

Agencies expanding INCLUDES program, diversity data collection

Identifying “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as a top priority, the report takes a broad view of the subject, stating that STEM education should be available to all Americans “regardless of geography, race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, veteran status, parental education attainment, disability status, learning challenges, and other social identities.”

The report highlights NSF’s INCLUDES program as an example of a current federal effort to address the persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields. The program aims to scale-up proven strategies for broadening participation in STEM through a national network of multi-institutional projects. In concert with the report’s release, NSF announced plans to expand the program through partnerships with four federal R&D agencies.

The report also directs federal agencies to develop common metrics and reporting mechanisms to assess participation rates of underrepresented groups in their STEM education programs, especially well-established scholarships and fellowships. Such efforts align with goals of the bipartisan “STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act,” which the House passed one year ago.

Budget outlook unclear

The report does not include any budgetary information or establish any quantitative goals for the priorities it identifies. In a press briefing, OSTP indicated that funding details will not be released until the rollout of the president’s next budget request in February 2019. The administration’s budget requests for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 included deep cuts for several programs that support STEM education, most of which were rejected by Congress.

Nevertheless, the report has received initial praise from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who is the primary co-sponsor of the “STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act” and is expected to become chair of the House Science Committee. In a statement, she praised the report’s focus on workforce development and broadening participation, saying,

Engaging underrepresented minorities and blue-collar workers in STEM fields, one of my top priorities in the coming Congress, will help ensure that the United States remains a global leader in innovation. I sincerely hope that the White House takes the recommendations they presented in this report to heart when crafting its budget proposal for fiscal year 2020.

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