Is there room for “STEM” on the stump?
That ubiquitous acronym—short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education—has become a major topic in recent years among federal lawmakers, who argue that improving student skills in those subjects is vital to future American prosperity.
Now, STEM is the subject of a bill sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
His proposal and a companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., have Republican backers. The measure aims to “give students the resources and curriculum they need” to prosper in the future economy, Mr. Obama said in a May 21 statement.
The federal government currently spends an estimated $3 billion across several agencies on STEM education, but those efforts, Rep. Honda said in a statement, are neither “coordinated, nor coherent, nor cooperative.” The legislation would create a national “research repository” to highlight strong federal STEM education programs.
The bills would also establish a new office and an assistant secretary for STEM education in the Department of Education, and create a multistate consortium to develop common STEM content standards.
“If you ask anybody, is there a clear direction related to all these activities related to STEM, I don’t think anybody has a handle on it,” Rep. Honda, a former high school science teacher, said in an interview. (“Few Federal Math and Science Programs Deemed Effective,” May 16, 2007.)
While he hoped his bill would be judged on its merits, Rep. Honda said he didn’t mind the reflected light cast on it by having Sen. Obama on board.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he said.
At a campaign stop last week at the Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton, Colo., Sen. Obama didn’t mention his STEM bill, but he cited competitiveness concerns about U.S. high schools.
“Already, China is graduating eight times as many engineers as we are,” the senator said at the May 28 event, according to a transcript. “By 12th grade, our children score lower on math and science tests than most other kids in the world. And we now have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation in the world.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week