With eager students surrounding them, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Ivanka Trump touched moon rocks and examined an astronaut’s spacesuit this morning at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
They were here to talk to the mostly African-American, mostly female students from both district and charter schools in Washington and surrounding areas, as part of the museum’s Women’s History Month effort to get girls excited about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“Raise your hand if you’re passionate about STEM,” Trump said, looking out at a sea of hands. “Your response fills me with incredible hope. Today’s statistics, though, not so much.”
Women make up nearly half of the workforce, but only 26 percent of STEM workers. Research shows that between 4th and 12th grades, girls’ interest in STEM decreases. In particular, girls are severely underrepresented in computer science courses at all levels.
Trump urged the girls in the audience to “beat those statistics and advance the role of women in STEM fields.” For her part, she said, she is taking a coding class with her 5-year-old daughter Arabella this summer.
She also issued a call to action to the male students: “I’m going to urge you to empower your female classmates and support them along the way,” Trump said. “The playing field will only be leveled if we can all work together to eliminate these longstanding barriers.”
DeVos told the students: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy or a girl, whether you’re black or white, you can be great at whatever you do, so long as you believe in yourself, you work hard, and you stay true to your convictions.”
DeVos said she mentors a teenage girl in her hometown, and asked the students to consider mentoring a younger sibling or relative. “I hope that you never underestimate the impact that you can have on their lives by being a good example and by encouraging them to be the best they can be at whatever they choose to do,” she said.
After the presentations, during which astronaut Kay Hire also spoke, the students saw a screening of the movie “Hidden Figures,” which is based on the true story of Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician whose calculations helped NASA put an astronaut into orbit around Earth. Trump praised Johnson and the other women on her team.
“Thanks to their enormous contribution, today, more than 50 years later, my father’s administration has expanded NASA’s space exploration mission and added Mars as a key objective,” she said. President Trump had signed a bill last week that authorized $19.5 billion in spending for NASA and added human exploration of Mars as a goal for the agency.
“I know there’s probably someone in this audience who’s going to be part of that important mission,” DeVos added.
Still, Trump’s budget proposal would shut down NASA’s Office of Education, which works to promote STEM for girls, along with other educational initiatives.
That discrepancy led Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to condemn the visit.
-- Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) March 28, 2017
She said in a statement that DeVos and Trump are “feigning an interest in STEM careers with a photo op at the National Air and Space Museum while eliminating all funding for NASA’s education programs.”
“If this administration was genuinely interested in promoting STEM programs, it would walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” she continued.
For her part, DeVos tweeted:
-- Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) March 28, 2017
Ivanka Trump, from left, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, center, and others, listens as NASA Astronaut Kay Hire speaks to female students at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, March 28, to celebrate Women’s History Month. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.