Obama Emphasizes STEM Education in State of the Union

By Erik W. Robelen — January 26, 2011 3 min read
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In his address last night, President Obama repeatedly talked about the importance of STEM education to the nation’s economic well-being, raised concerns about the quality of math and science instruction here, and reiterated his call for recruiting 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade.

For the bigger picture on how President Obama discussed education in his State of the Union speech, including his call on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, check out the joint blog post by my colleagues over at Politics K-12. Rather than overlap with that, I figured I would look specifically at STEM education, given how much attention he devoted to the matter in his remarks. In general, it’s a topic Obama has talked about quite a bit during his presidency, especially over the past year or so.

Also, as I noted in a blog post yesterday, several students who have done exemplary work in the STEM fields were invited to sit with first lady Michelle Obama in her box at the U.S. Capitol last night.

Here are a few highlights from the speech that touch on STEM education.

China and India Emphasize Math and Science:
“Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.”

He continued: “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”

A Sputnik Moment:
“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

As you may know, this is not the first time the president has used the “Sputnik moment” rhetoric.

Math and Science Ed. ‘Lags':
“Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us—as citizens, and as parents—are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”

“That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. ... We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”

This last comment picks up on a rhetorical thread the president has invoked before.

100,000 New STEM Teachers:
“We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.”

This reference to recruiting more STEM teachers is not a new theme from President Obama. He made the same call in September.

‘What do you think of that idea?’
Finally, this comment by the president was not specific to STEM education, but it’s one I thought many educators might appreciate:

“We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea—the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here. It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like ‘What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.