A new White House strategy for improving science education is receiving high grades for its emphasis on inclusion, diversity, and workforce development.
The 5-year strategy for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education released on Tuesday sets a vision “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.”
To reach that vision, the strategy includes three main goals. First, it calls for building a strong foundation for all Americans to gain STEM literacy, so that they can be better able to handle the rapid pace of technological change and be “better prepared to participate in civil society.” The strategy also calls for equal access to STEM education opportunities across the country for a more diverse and inclusive STEM “ecosystem” and for preparing the “STEM workforce of the future.”
The 36-page strategy is laid out in Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education, which was prepared by the Committee on STEM Education of the White House’s National Science and Technology Council. It follows and covers much of the same ground as a 143-page STEM education strategic plan issued in 2013 by the Obama administration, and it was issued in response to requirements of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.
The new document incorporates four approaches to meeting its goals, including developing and strengthening strategic STEM partnerships, engaging students where various disciplines converge, and building computational literacy. A fourth approach, to operate with transparency and accountability, calls for developing a federal implementation plan and tracking progress by federal agencies in meeting the strategy’s goals.
In addition, the strategy also hopes to serve as an inspiration for state and local STEM education efforts. The document states that “beyond guiding the Federal agency actions over the next five years, [the strategy] is intended to serve as a ‘North Star’ for the STEM community as it charts a course for collective success.”
White House Rollout
At a White House event to roll out the strategy, Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president for technology policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), called it “a milestone for the nation.” He said that despite some success in the past regarding STEM education, “we are not yet where we need to be, and in order to produce a wave of homegrown STEM talent capable of taking on the complex challenges of our time, we need a lifelong approach to skill building.” Kratsios is cochair of the Committee on STEM Education along with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and National Science Foundation (NSF) director France Córdova.
Córdova said the report highlights the need for the United States to maintain its leadership in STEM, which has driven the nation’s economic development, national security, and job growth. “Other world powers have noticed the American connection between STEM and prosperity, and they are working to catch up,” Córdova said. “China, India, and others are in a race to build scientific enterprises that can match ours. That race is largely one for talent, and our lead is slipping.”
She continued, “Our workforce has been growing steadily. In contrast, some of our competitors have been growing explosively.” A 7 February statement by the U.S. National Science Board indicates that if current trends continue, the board “expects China to pass the United States in [research and development] investments by the end of this year.”
Córdova also focused on the inclusiveness aspect of the strategy. “A critical part of the plan is harnessing one of our nation’s greatest strengths: its diversity. We are unique in our ability to bring new people and new ideas to the activities that will propel this country forward.”
At the White House event, several agencies, including NSF, announced some specific commitments to supporting the White House strategy. Among the commitments is expanding NSF’s program to broaden participation and diversity in STEM, which is known as INCLUDES, to other federal agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s acting director Tim Gallaudet also outlined some specific STEM commitments, such as ocean exploration and marine sanctuary education outreach, scholarships and fellowships, and support for the National Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition.
Investing in the Next Generation
Speaking at the rollout, NASA administrator Bridenstine said that the agency’s achievements—including the dramatic Apollo missions and this week’s arrival of NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft at asteroid Bennu—are due to investments in STEM education. “These stunning achievements are happening really for one reason: because this country has made investments into its next generation, going back in time,” he said. “This today is about a strategy for investing in the next generation. NASA is going to continue to have these stunning achievements, but not if we don’t have that next generation coming behind.”
Bridenstine also put the need for STEM education into a national security context, stating that “the balance of power on Earth depends on who controls the technology, who has the most advanced technology.”
Bridenstine elaborated to Eos on the connection of STEM to national security. “When you think about national power, technology is a big piece of it. Science is a big part of it,” he said. “When you think about national security, it means everything from economics all the way to national defense. We’re not going to be competitive economically unless we have that next generation of scientists and engineers advancing technologies that will improve the human condition. That’s our goal as a country: to be as strong as we can possibly be economically and as prepared as we can be for the future.”
Bridenstine told Eos that he is optimistic that the strategy can make a difference in improving STEM diversity and inclusiveness. “We can’t turn this on a dime, but we have to start today making sure that young folks in those underserved communities are preparing themselves for the future. That’s really what this STEM report is all about,” he said.
An Equity Issue
At the event, Vince Bertram, president and CEO of Project Lead the Way, an Indianapolis, Ind.–based education organization, told Eos that the report helps to even the scales. “It really is an equity issue in ensuring that all students have access to high-quality STEM education,” he said. It’s also “a call to action around being inclusive and making sure that underrepresented students are no longer underrepresented,” said Bertram, a member of the interagency STEM Education Advisory Panel.
The roadblock to STEM inclusiveness “has been a reluctance to recognize that the ecosystem does have to be expanded, that we can’t get there with just the suburbs alone,” Larry Robinson, president of Florida A&M University and a STEM Education Advisory Panel member, told Eos. To compete with other nations such as China and India, “it’s going to take finding and developing talent throughout this great nation,” he said. “There are a lot of communities and individuals who haven’t been duly considered in that process.”
Sending a Message Across the Political Spectrum
David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association and vice-chair of the STEM Education Advisory Panel, told Eos that the new strategy “is a real accomplishment.” He said that the strategy highlights the importance of having a literate citizenry. The strategy leads with the knowledge that you have to understand [STEM] just to be a functioning citizen. And it assumes that that applies to every citizen.”
He also praised the report for dealing with equity and diversity issues “head-on, instead of just having [them] around in the margins,” and for tracking agency commitments to advancing STEM education.
Evans said he hopes that this strategy can help to counter an antiscience climate that he says is present across the political spectrum and includes antiscience stances on climate change, evolution, and genetically modified organisms, among other topics. The fact that this administration “has come together and put a strong emphasis on STEM education sends a message across the political spectrum that says [STEM education] is actually important and we need to pay attention to it,” he said. “The fact that the report came out from this administration may actually provide a little more weight than if it had come out from an administration perceived to be more science friendly.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer