When it comes to STEM, “both-and” is better than “either-or.”

Last month, the White House issued an important statement on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. The statement builds on February remarks by the President:

“We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.”

A grand vision… and the focus on preparing a 21st century workforce is surely appropriate. If anything, the goal understates the importance of STEM education to the American people and the world.  STEM education is the Nation’s incubator for innovation in future years. STEM education doesn’t just prepare Americans for the jobs of the future. It also transforms the nature of those jobs. Innovation of the past century has changed America from a manufacturing society to an information society, and it’s now changing America once more. Thanks to STEM, we’re moving toward a more-balanced, productive society. Manufacturing, information, and services will not only be more integrated but also contribute more to the Nation’s safety, health, prosperity, and national security. STEM education is one reason America’s 4% of the world population can realistically aspire to remaining the indispensable Nation for the 21st century, and why American ideals of freedom and democracy can endure.

The White House statement goes on to give some of the particulars:

President Obama strongly believes that the United States must equip many more students to excel in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). That’s why the President’s 2014 Budget invests $3.1 billion in programs across the Federal government on STEM education, an increase of 6.7 percent over 2012 funding levels (see Table). The 2014 Budget includes critical investments in a number of areas that will benefit aspiring students:

 Recruiting, preparing and supporting excellent STEM teachers, with $80 million to support the President’s goal of preparing 100,000 excellent STEM teachers and $35 million to launch a pilot STEM Master Teacher Corps.

 Supporting more STEM-focused high schools and districts, with an investment of $150 million to create new STEM Innovation Networks to better connect school districts with local, regional, and national resources. In addition, the Department of Education (ED) will invest $300 million to support re-design of high schools to encourage partnerships with colleges, employers, or community partners, focusing on high-demand employment sectors such as STEM fields.

 Improving undergraduate STEM education, with the National Science Foundation (NSF) launching a $123 million new program to improve retention of undergraduates in STEM fields and improve undergraduate teaching and learning in STEM subjects to meet the President’s goal of preparing 1 million more STEM graduates over the next decade.

 Investing in breakthrough research on STEM teaching and learning, with approximately $65 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education (ARPA-ED), which would allow the Department of Education to support high-risk, high-return research on next-generation learning technologies, including for STEM education.

So far so good. The new programs proposed for Department of Education, NSF, and DoD/DARPA will surely contribute to strong improvements in STEM education.

But the next piece of the proposal is more problematic. It turns out that the administration plans to accomplish this in part by cannibalizing 114 of the 226 STEM programs threaded through federal agencies. The administration cites $180M savings which will be used in part to fund the new thrusts. In support of this step, the administration speaks to reduced fragmentation, easier coordination, and more rigorous evaluation.

All laudable goals. But there’s analogy here to reducing the biodiversity of an ecosystem, with the same negative results. Reducing biodiversity diminishes ecosystem function and resiliency and makes the ecosystem more vulnerable to die-off and collapse. In the same way, reducing the diversity of STEM programs targeted to the particular specialties of the agencies… particle physics, medicine, the geosciences, forestry, agriculture, fisheries, energy, and much more… reduces the ability of those agencies to inspire young people’s interest in and capacity for their specialized work. Long-standing staples such as NOAA’s Teacher-at-Sea Program (to name one example of dozens) are jeopardized.

The reality is that these programs aren’t so much fragmented as tailored. Our entire educational system is locally-, not federally-based, precisely to foster such diversity and to put the control in the hands of those most motivated to see it function well… the parents of the children involved.

To sum up… the choice between either integrated or fragmented is a false one. Either approach, carried out in isolation, carries risk…risk that is unacceptable for programs so vital to the Nation’s interests as these. The way to minimize that risk is to carry out both approaches, with full vigor: both integrated and tailored. A side benefit of the both-and approach is that the tailored programs are building on the improved foundation provided by the new, integrated thrusts, and so can contribute even more effectively.

By the way, do the math. If the savings of the cutbacks amount only to $180M, then the added cost of “both-and” to every American comes to one or two pennies a week. A small price to pay to ensure we create the world’s best labor force and at the same time transform America in the 21st century.

That’s my two cents’ worth.

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One Response to When it comes to STEM, “both-and” is better than “either-or.”

  1. Bill:-

    Two important points…one you brought up and one you didn’t.

    Integration vs diversity. We have plenty of diversity and no integration. The programs are stovepiped across too many agencies (and, of course, this applies to a LOT more than just education) and, because of the lack of integration, no one (esp. Congress) can say which if any of the programs are actually working. More importantly, no one can say “Cut this, prune that, change the direction of the other.” In short, while I agree with your principle, I also believe that Senator Dirksen’s famous dictum is even more more important in this context: “Sometimes you have to rise above principle to do the right thing.”

    In my opinion, none of the programs are addressing the more important problem: only about 30-40% of our kids are doing well educationally. If they were the only students in our country, we’d probably rank in at least the top 10 internationally in math and science. But we’ve got that other 60-70% (note: Charles Murray probably was the first to call attention to this widening divide in “Coming Apart,” but now the idea has been pretty much mainstreamed, e.g., by the Brookings Institution.). It is inconceivable that we can have a significant impact on STEM training without addressing the larger issues facing those 60-70% of our youth. The narrowing career paths for those without a high school education; the alarming rise in teen births in some parts of the country; the growing physical separation between the educated and the uneducated which means that the educated (who have the means) no longer see the problems of the uneducated.

    In the words of an old song I’ve always liked, the Occupy X Movements “got the right string, baby, but the wrong yo-yo.” It’s not the separation between the 1% and everybody else – there’s really not that much separation among the top 30+%; it’s this gaping gulf between the upper 30+% and everybody else that we’ve got to fix.

    In other words, these proposed changes in STEM education seem like more political rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and I’m afraid are unlikely to have any meaningful impact.

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