BY SARAH OGDEN
Engineering is cool again. It may be the mixed-bag reality of a global economy, the search for answers to our energy concerns, or maybe just the idea of a cell phone that does everything but pick up dry cleaning—but the once-oblique term "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) now can be heard everywhere from Capitol Hill to the media, especially as it applies to education. The message is, "We are falling behind." These days "competitiveness" rolls off the tongue as easily as Wall Street-isms did in the '80s.
Congress has been making attempts at STEM education legislation for several years, with varying degrees of intensity and success. Often these bills languished in committee, buried under higher priorities—not likely now that STEM is a hot topic. President Barack Obama is also an ardent fan of STEM education, championing it from his campaign platform to his April 27 address to the National Academy of Sciences, when he called for dramatic improvements to student achievements in math and science.
Riding this wave of STEM-thusiasm, enacted and proposed legislation seeks to encourage future generations of Americans to pursue education in STEM fields:
- Recently, NSPE joined a group of engineering and technical education organizations in asking the president to recommend that funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 be allocated to inspire the next generation of engineers and to expand technological literacy and engineering education for all K12 students. Building on Obama's stated desire to use a portion of "Race to the Top" funds to promote world-class standards, the group advocated that technological literacy and engineering standards, assessments, and related activities should be included. The group further suggested that the "Race to the Top" effort could build on state initiatives to include technological literacy and engineering in state standards and assessments and serve as a model or resource for other states to adopt, ultimately improving teaching and learning in STEM fields.
- The president signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (H.R. 1388) into law at the end of April. The act, which garnered broad, bipartisan support from both houses of Congress, offers engineers opportunities to serve their communities through volunteerism related to STEM education. Retired STEM professionals are encouraged to assist teachers in classrooms, run after-school programs, and provide field trips to businesses and universities. The Serve America Act also authorizes programs that would integrate service-learning into the STEM curricula and emphasize the role of mentoring in encouraging youth to study STEM subjects.
Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE), who holds a degree in mechanical engineering, remarked on the STEM components of the Serve America Act, saying that "the vitality of our economy rests with our ability to be the world's leader in innovation, and I believe this means that we must do more to attract the best and the brightest to careers in science and engineering." Kaufman also voiced his hopes that this generation's engineers will inspire future generations: "We must—once again—capture the attention of our students and let them see the numerous ways that STEM contribute[s] to our economy and can improve the lives of their fellow citizens
. Just as I decided to study engineering because I was inspired by 'Sputnik' and the race to put a man on the moon, we must inspire our students to work on issues of critical need as well."
- The Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids (SPEAK) Act would create, adopt, and implement a set of core education content standards in math and science in grades K12 and give states incentives to voluntarily adopt them. The No Child Left Behind Act allows for great variability in the measures, standards, and benchmarks for academic achievement in math and science across states—more than 50 different sets of academic standards, 50 state assessments, and 50 definitions of proficiency, in fact. Creating a single set of standards would ensure that all students were given the same opportunity to learn to a high standard no matter where they reside and allow for meaningful comparisons of student academic achievement across states.
- The STEM Education Coordination Act of 2009 (H.R. 1709) would establish a committee under the National Science and Technology Council to coordinate the STEM education programs of all federal agencies. The committee would be charged with establishing and maintaining an inventory of all federally sponsored STEM education programs and assessments of their effectiveness. The bill would also require the committee to work with the agencies to develop and implement a five-year strategic plan, which would be reported to Congress annually.
These proposed bills may be the kind of STEM education legislation you can expect from this Congress: focused on ensuring that existing funding (which does include ample ARRA funding) is spent prudently. Because STEM education programs are sprouting so rapidly, applying a framework of consistent standards, compiling a catalog of programs to avoid duplication of effort, and designing a long-term strategy are all critical to these programs' success and the achievement of our country's goal: competitiveness.