Published Online: January 11, 2010

Commentary

STEM Education: A Race to the Top

In a recent speech, former President Bill Clinton compared the United States today to the European Union in the 1990s. During that period, he said, many EU countries were creating “a slew of new jobs in energy.” Notably ahead of the green-revolution curve, they now have the strong, growing employment in green jobs we hope to launch with new initiatives and much innovation.

If America is to rebuild its economy, it must develop new opportunities with room for growth.

This means creating green jobs to produce safe water, clean, renewable energy, and other aids to environmental sustainability. It means producing biomedical jobs that help us discover life-saving cures for diseases, jobs in science and technology that lead to creative new ways to deliver old products and services more efficiently—and to communicate with and educate people across the globe.

Training the next generation of young people to pursue these important careers begins with graduating more students skilled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or the STEM subjects.

STEM fields are absolutely critical to the nation’s continued economic recovery, and to our economic competitiveness well into the future. Engineers and scientists have always been, and always will be, the world’s problem-solvers. They are the professionals who will help us innovate, and create the new products and industries that bring with them the jobs of the future.

As a former engineer, I’ve taken great pride in the fact that I have the opportunity to advocate in the U.S. Senate for a renewed educational emphasis on science and innovation. I’ve been able to introduce legislation to coordinate federal STEM education programming, and help secure much-needed funding to help women and underrepresented minorities from rural areas pursue STEM careers. But the task will take more from all of us.

According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, just 4 percent of American college graduates have a major in engineering, compared with 13 percent of European students and 20 percent of Asian students. We cannot tackle the immense challenges the nation faces without training and inspiring more students to pursue these academic disciplines and enter STEM careers—and we must do this before they leave the K-12 education pipeline.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competitive-grant program recognizes the urgency. The $4 billion in available funding already has spurred states nationwide to focus on core reform areas, including STEM education. By including a competitive preference for states with a demonstrated emphasis in this area—worth 3 percent of a state’s total application score—Race to the Top provides a direct incentive for states to make STEM education a priority in their schools.

In fact, the National Governors Association, along with several foundations, nonprofits, and government entities, recently held a “resource conference” for states on the STEM preference in the Race to the Top program. Representatives from 30 states attended, including from my home state of Delaware. Education remains a local issue, but the Race to the Top STEM preference provides an example of the kind of catalytic effect the federal government can have on education at the state and local levels.

President Barack Obama’s "Educate to Innovate" campaign, moreover, builds on the type of public-private collaboration we will need to bolster STEM education. The campaign is a nationwide effort of private companies, universities, foundations, nonprofits, and science and engineering societies—working with the federal government—to improve student performance in STEM subjects. As part of this effort, business leaders and nonprofits will be joining forces to identify and then help replicate successful STEM programs across the country.

Time Warner Cable and the Coalition for Science After School, for example, are creating an online directory of STEM after-school programs. Other STEM-focused organizations will be teaming up with local volunteers to host National Lab Days. And President Obama has announced a commitment from public universities to prepare 10,000 new math and science teachers annually by 2015.

The Race to the Top program and the Educate to Innovate campaign together have the potential to raise the amount of investment and attention given to STEM education—to a level that American students deserve. That, in turn, is what the jobs of the future will require.

Vol. 29, Issue 18

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