Inadequate priority to STEM today? A compromised U.S. workforce – and a correspondingly weaker Nation – tomorrow.

Years ago, a friend of mine moved into a new house. In the process, he discovered one of the electrical outlets was non-functional. Curious, he pulled the cover and did a bit of disassembly, to find the outlet had been connected to a few feet of electrical wire that led nowhere.

The proposed administration FY 2020 federal budget repeats FY 2019 calls for cuts in some federal-agency STEM related programs, again citing a mandated strategic plan for these decisions. (You can start tracking down further details here.)

What remains in the budget requests are programs targeted at those on track for science careers, and programs providing education for those already in the workplace.

This strategy is reminiscent of my friend’s experience. Best he could figure, when the house had been under construction, someone had done the wiring infrastructure. Someone else had subsequently swept the flooring clean at day’s end, but the loose cable was left dangling over an edge, the unattached end invisible. Drywallers had come in, saw the bit of cable, and naturally enough cut a hole for the outlet. A finish electrical worker had duly wired it up. No single person was to blame. But the end result was dysfunctional.

Federal inattention to K-12 STEM education has the same flavor, and risks leading to the same sorry result. Certainly the fundamental policy premise of public education is local (maybe state-level) control, with all the diversity, high degree of motivation and attention, and other benefits that approach brings. Stultifying federal regulation is contraindicated. But that doesn’t mean the federal government should be hands off. It can and should supply critically-needed resources. Education funding and other resources (teachers, classroom equipment, etc.) available at local school districts vary widely; many districts struggle. And K-12 education for millions of kids powers the workforce of tomorrow. Limiting federal STEM funding only to the downstream end (the adult workforce) is equivalent to installing an electrical outlet without looking at its connection to the energy source.

The United States comprises only 4% of the world’s population. A highly educated people is essential to our future prospects: sustaining our fundamental values, maintaining innovation, ensuring our national security, and for that matter, the world’s geopolitical stability.

(Last year the Congress failed to support the proposed FY 2019 cuts.)

Three closing comments.

  1. This coming Monday, the AMS begins a two-day workshop here in DC looking at workforce issues. Considerations of K-12 STEM education won’t be the sole focus, but will be woven through the conversation. You didn’t register? We won’t hold it against you. If you have the chance, please sign up and show up.
  2. The AMS runs an Education Program that works with K-12 teachers and reaches deep into schoolrooms across the country. Young people’s interest in weather and related topics constitute a portal for STEM education more broadly. Chances are good, if you’re reading this, you can help and be involved.
  3. Federal attention to education actually needs to extend to pre-school ages – much earlier than the point at which Head Start kicks in. This coming Monday, ZerotoThree, a non-profit, will highlight such issues by bringing babies and their families to the office corridors of Capitol Hill in an outreach they call Strolling Thunder. (Full disclosure: my daughter works there.) Gotta love the meteorological theme and the reference to the Vietnam veterans’ Rolling Thunder coming up over the memorial Day weekend.
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