White House Seeks Innovation Through ‘STEM’

By Sean Cavanagh — November 24, 2009 2 min read
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The Obama administration announced that it has rustled up all kinds of support, financial and otherwise, for its “Educate to Innovate” effort, which could be described as an aggressive public awareness campaign for “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math) studies. The president, in his remarks, cast the project as a follow-up to a speech he made earlier this year at the National Academies, in which he called on scientists to, in a manner of speaking, get out of labs and get into schools, so they can tell students directly what it is they do, and why we should care about it.

Every participating corporation and foundation had its own take on the White House effort, and their role in it. Here are a couple of my own observations:

Obama and his team seem convinced that in order to get students interested in “STEM,” we need to talk about those subjects in a different way. While Obama, like many elected officials these days, bemoaned the United States’ so-so performance on international tests, most of what he said wasn’t about test performance, teacher shortages, or the other measurables that get endlessly discussed. Mostly, he talked about the power of science—to spark invention, to create jobs, to bring about changes in areas in medicine, the environment, but above all, to make sense of the world:

[I]t goes beyond the facts in a biology textbook or the questions on an algebra quiz. It's about the ability to understand our world: to harness and train that human capacity to solve problems and think critically, a set of skills that informs the decisions we make throughout our lives. So, yes, improving education in math and science is about producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better. But it's also about something more. ... It's about expanding opportunity for all Americans in a world where an education is the key to success. It's about an informed citizenry in an era where many of the problems we face as a nation are, at root, scientific problems. And it's about the power of science to not only unlock new discoveries, but to unlock in the minds of our young people a sense of promise, a sense that with some hard work -- with effort -- they have the potential to achieve extraordinary things."

See a video of the White House event, below.

In a statement that went with Obama’s remarks, the administration continued on its theme, saying that boosting “STEM literacy,” was one of the goals of the project—which means giving students the ability to “think critically in science, math, engineering, and technology,” among other objectives.

The president sought to bolster the overall case for STEM with examples from his recent trip to Asia, recalling how, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak said his top challenge in ed policy was coping with parents who constantly demanded more of the education system. In China, Obama said the mayor of Shanghai told him they don’t have problems recruiting teachers because the pay scales are comparable to those of doctors. One could take issue with the president’s selective use of international test results (he alludes to poor U.S. scores on PISA, but our TIMSS performance is better, and some say the overall picture is better than many American politicians seem to want to admit). And China’s education system has many well-documented problems, particularly the lack of access to education in across much of the population.

That aside, another aspect of the White House effort worth noting: It attempts to get students interested in STEM by reaching them where they live—namely, in the world of television and technology. A number of the public-private partnerships focus on using educational programming, online tools, social networking, and video games to increase students’ awareness of math and science studies and fields, from an early age.

What aspects of “Educate to Innovate” do you find appealing, and where do you think it could be improved?

Obama Announces ‘Educate to Innovate’

White House video

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