Last night’s State of the Union address? A real STEM-winder!

Stemwinder? An old-fashioned mechanical watch needing winding. Now there’s a word that probably will disappear from the vocabulary in a few more years! tells us that it’s also old slang for “a rousing speech, especially a stirring political address.”

But STEM itself is an acronym that will be with us for a while. It refers to Science-, Technology-, Engineering-, and Mathematics education.

President Obama’s speech last night called all this to mind. Partisans found much in his talk to like. And one area of emphasis was STEM education. An excerpt:

“Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree.(Emphasis added). And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top. To all fifty states, we said, “If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.”

There’s more to the president’s speech, but this gives the flavor. He is right to emphasize education. Most of us want to see American values maintained, advanced, and extended throughout the remainder of this century. If we were the most populous country in the world, perhaps we could tolerate a mediocre educational system and achieve such aims through sheer force of numbers. But given that we add up to no more than a few percent of the world’s people, we must ensure that our science and engineering are cutting edge. We must create and innovate. And for the world’s sake, the best of our accomplishments should contribute to sustainable development – new energy technologies; better understanding of Earth processes; greater use of renewable resources; knowing how to protect the environment and ecosystems. 

Even were we the best in this arena there would be no cause for complacency. But lagging behind other countries with respect not just to STEM education but also attainment of college degrees? This is truly alarming. Such decline in educational standing is probably the most reliable leading indicator that future U.S. fortunes and U.S. standing in the world will decline in years ahead. A November post describes how an emphasis on Earth science in public education would help reverse this threat.

Here the American Meteorological Society can hold its head high. For decades Society staff (led initially by Ira Geer, and now by Jim Brey), and a vast and committed network of teacher-collaborators across the country have made Earth science accessible to American public-school students. This week at the Annual Meeting the 20th Symposium on Education was causing a lot of hallway buzz. Participants were finding the sessions especially lively and energizing. Are you one of their number? Are you working at one of the federal agencies – NSF, NOAA, NASA, the Navy, and others – who have supported this work? You should take special satisfaction in your contributions to world well-being.

Others of you should be pleased at this recognition for your efforts as well. James R. Mahoney (Chair), Martin Storksdieck (Director), and others standing up the new NAS/NRC Climate Change Education Roundtable should give yourselves a pat on the back. Are you working in the education programs of any of the federal agencies? Enjoy the moment. But in a sense, all of us in this community, as well as the media who cover our stories, are donating dollars, thought, and effort to this great cause. We should all feel good.

And then get back to the task at hand!


A bit of back-story. If you work for any federal agency, you know that innovation and development of new initiatives to meet new national challenges is a major part of your year. The annual rhythm of the budget cycle includes selling these initiatives at the Cabinet Department-level, usually during the summer months, and then again at OMB in the fall and into the holiday season. It’s a grueling process! Budgets are always tight and only the best ideas addressing the most urgent needs make it through. The Holy Grail? Getting a mention in the State of the Union address.

Why? Because any sitting president, of whatever political persuasion, has only limited time to make a handful of points. Those few that are chosen reflect both a powerful pre-existing national concern, and at the same time trigger a spike in public awareness and support.

That’s the kind of thing that can get you wound up!

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