Education Opinion

President Obama’s April 27, 2009 STEM Speech

By LeaderTalk Contributor — May 07, 2009 5 min read
Who will ignite the desire to learn in the adults today so they will ignite the desire to learn in our children tomorrow?

On April 27, 2009 President Obama spoke at the 146th Annual Meeting of National Academy of Sciences. I recommend the entire speech for its historic importance, a turning point for science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) that could some day be viewed as the equivalent of President John F. Kennedy’s ‘Decision to Go to the Moon’ speech almost fifty years ago on May 25, 1961, and for the context it provides Mr. Obama’s comments on STEM education.

How far will the STEM education have travelled by 2020? By 2070? Now seems like the time for us to transform the status quo. If predictions about the future are correct, as I believe they are, our civilization my depend on what scientists and educators do now with this invitation Present Obama issued us, individually and collectively, to prepare the youth of our nation to “tackle the grand challenges of this decade.”

What will you do? What will we do together?

STEM Education: Top Priority

Mr. Obama is making the sciences and STEM education a top priority for his administration. In his speech he called for “a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science.”

America’s young people will rise to the challenge if given the opportunity –- if called upon to join a cause larger than themselves. We’ve got evidence. You know, the average age in NASA’s mission control during the Apollo 17 mission was just 26. I know that young people today are just as ready to tackle the grand challenges of this century.

Mr. Obama identified the quality of science and math teaching as the “the most influential single factor in determining whether a student will succeed or fail in [STEM] subjects.” Given that America is projected to be short 280,000 math and science teachers in 2015, Mr. Obama said we need to pay attention to this weakness and take strategic action now.

Offering a specific financial incentive, Mr. Obama said, “States making strong commitments and progress in math and science education will be eligible to compete later this fall for additional funds under the Secretary of Education’s $5 billion Race to the Top program.”

Mr. Obama presented elements of his STEM agenda when he challenged Americans to collaborate to “dramatically improve achievement in math and science” using “inventive approaches.”

2020 STEM Education Goals

Mr. Obama announced two major goals for STEM education over the next decade.

√ By 2020 “increase the number of high school graduates so … America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” and
√ By 2020 ensure that American students move “from the middle to the top of the pack [internationally] in science and math over the next decade”

The Fifty States

Mr. Obama asked each state in the nation to

√ raise STEM standards
√ modernize science labs
√ upgrade STEM curriculum
√ forge partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in our classrooms
√ enhance STEM teacher preparation and training
√ attract new and qualified STEM teachers
√ better engage students in STEM education
√ reinvigorate STEM subjects in our schools
√ create systems that retain and reward effective STEM teachers
√ create new pathways to bring the expertise and the enthusiasm of experienced STEM professionals into STEM classroom

Obama Administration

The Obama administration’s budget “provides tax credits and grants to make a college education more affordable,” and it “triples the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships” to support students who want to pursue scientific careers. Mr. Obama also committed to participating “in a public awareness and outreach campaign to encourage students to consider careers in science and mathematics and engineering.” You can view Pennsylvania’s STEM Initiative Communications Plan video here.

National Governors Association

The National Governor’s Association (NGA) has a current STEM initiative, a component of Innovation America. Mr. Obama said Governor Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania will lead an NGA initiative to have every state make science, technology, engineering and mathematics education a top priority. Read Innovation America: Building a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Agenda, an NGA report, to become familiar the NGA STEM agenda. I created a summary, NGA Innovation America STEM Strategies, that you can download here.

Academy of Sciences and the Scientific Community

Mr. Obama challenged scientists to

√ “use their love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation”
√ “spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you”
√ “participate in programs to allow students to get a degree in science fields and a teaching certificate at the same time”
√ participate in “new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent — to be makers of things, not just consumers of things”

Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation

Mr. Obama announced that the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation will be launching a joint initiative to inspire tens of thousands of American students to pursue [STEM careers], particularly in clean energy. The initiative will include

√ “an educational campaign to capture the imagination of young people who can help us meet the energy challenge”
√ “research opportunities for undergraduates and educational opportunities for women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields, but are no less capable of inventing the solutions that will help us grow our economy and save our planet”
√ “fellowships and interdisciplinary graduate programs and partnerships between academic institutions and innovative companies to prepare a generation of Americans to meet this generational challenge”

Encouraging Words

The President concluded with some sober words of encouragement and hope for the audience of scientists and the education profession.

Somewhere in America there’s an entrepreneur seeking a loan to start a business that could transform an industry — but she hasn’t secured it yet. There’s a researcher with an idea for an experiment that might offer a new cancer treatment -– but he hasn’t found the funding yet. There’s a child with an inquisitive mind staring up at the night sky. And maybe she has the potential to change our world –- but she doesn’t know it yet. As you know, scientific discovery takes far more than the occasional flash of brilliance –- as important as that can be. Usually, it takes time and hard work and patience; it takes training; it requires the support of a nation. But it holds a promise like no other area of human endeavor. ...................... As President Kennedy said when he addressed the National Academy of Sciences more than 45 years ago: "The challenge, in short, may be our salvation."


The Decision to Go to the Moon: NASA History Office
Present Obama Speech to the National Academy of Sciences, April 27, 2009: Audio, Video, Transcript, Pictures
Pennsylvania STEM Initiative Communications Plan Video
Innovation America: Building a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Agenda, National Governors Association
STEM Communications Tool Kit, National Governors Association
Innovation America Website, National Governors Association

Photo Sources

President Obama
Innovation America: Building a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Agenda, National Governors Association

Dennis Richards
Retired, but still Learning & Teaching
twitter: dennisar
skype: drichards1
dennisar at gmail dot com

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