Obama Unveils STEM Ed. Plans at White House Science Fair

By Erik W. Robelen — February 07, 2012 3 min read
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President Obama hosted the second White House science fair today, using the event both to highlight the work of talented youth and to roll out a series of plans from his administration—and from private partners—to give a boost to STEM education.

One item on the president’s agenda is an $80 million proposal for a new federal competition to support “effective STEM teacher preparation programs,” according to a White House press release. In addition, the president is seeking to create a $60 million fund to improve mathematics education, to be jointly administered by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

Also, an upcoming Race to the Top competition will once again include STEM education as an area of focus in the criteria. And the Education Department will devote “a portion” of its next $300 million Teacher Incentive Fund competition to support local efforts to improve compensation, evaluation, and professional development systems for STEM educators, the White House release says.

In reference to plans to have the Superbowl-winning New York Giants come to the White House, President Obama said: “If we are recognizing athletic achievement, we should also be recognizing academic achievement, and science achievement.”

During the science fair, Obama got a chance to see firsthand some of the inventions developed by enterprising students. In fact, he even helped to shoot a marshmallow out of an air cannon (as you can see in the photos here).

“You’re in 6th grade? You guys are already inventing stuff?” the president said to students at one display. “I’m very impressed.”

Regarding a student who developed a system for detecting nuclear threats, Obama quipped to his science adviser, John Holdren: “John, hire this man.”

The president also used the event to highlight private-sector efforts to improve STEM education.

“When I took office, I called for an all-hands-on-deck aproach to science, technology, engineering, and math,” Obama said, “to make sure these fields get the respect and attention that they deserve. ... The private sector has answered that call as well.”

Fourteen organizations, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Google, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, among others, have just announced a $22 million fund for STEM teacher preparation and support. The effort is part of an initiative dubbed 100Kin10, an initiative created to attract and prepare 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over a decade.

The White House press release also highlighted other activities. For example:

• The National Math and Science Initiative will prepare 4,000 new STEM teachers from 31 UTeach sites by 2015;

Teach For America will recruit 11,000 STEM corps members by 2015; and

DonorsChoose will seek to inspire 50,000 citizens to sponsor projects in math and science classrooms over the next two years, delivering $15 million in classroom resources.

President Obama first hosted a White House science fair in October 2010. As we’ve noted before, the president has repeatedly used the bully pulpit to promote STEM education.

The White House today provided a brief description of some of the new plans put forward. For example, the $80 million teacher-preparation program would focus on such approaches as allowing students to simultaneously earn a STEM degree and a teaching certificate, and provide undergraduates with early and intensive classroom experiences to hone their skills, the White House news release said.

The new K-16 math program would seek to “develop, validate, and scale up evidence-based approaches to improve student learning at the K-12 and undergraduate levels through a ‘tiered-evidence framework’ to maximize [the] impact,” the White House said.

Of course, these two proposals, as well as some others outlined, will require sign-off by Congress, including the Republican-led House, to become law. Next Monday, Obama will put forward his full budget request for fiscal 2013.

Given what’s likely to be considerable pressure to reduce federal spending overall, it may be a tough sell to introduce still more new programs. Indeed, House Republicans have already made clear their preference to abolish many existing education programs and instead provide a smaller set of more flexible programs for states and school districts.

Photos: President Barack Obama checks out the “Extreme Marshmallow Cannon” designed by Joey Hudy of Phoenix, Ariz., during a tour of the White House Science Fair. Susan Walsh/AP and Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty.

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