The Value of STEM Education

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The US House of Representatives' Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep John Kline (R-MN), recently commissioned a General Accounting Office (GAO) report on America's federally-funded science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education portfolio. Among its conclusions, the GAO reports, "Many [STEM education] programs have a broad scope—serving multiple target groups with multiple services."  It goes on to say,

"However, even when programs overlap, the services they provide and the populations they serve may differ in meaningful ways and would therefore not necessarily be duplicative."

Incredibly, Rep. Kline issued a press release on the Education and Workforce Committee website, categorizing STEM education efforts as broadly duplicative and wasteful: "New Report Finds Significant Overlap in Federal STEM Education Programs: Maze of Programs Cost Taxpayers Billions, Rarely Reviewed for Efficacy." Quoting the release:

"...pumping billions of dollars into programs that may be duplicative or unproductive is just plain foolish. Instead of adding programs paid for with taxpayers’ hard-earned money, we need to promote more efficient government by weeding out waste and investing wisely.

Nobody would argue with the idea that the federal government needs to be held accountable for its investments. Coordinating efforts and measuring impacts are universal goals for any initiative, large or small. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But to represent the GAO report as an indication that STEM education efforts are unworthy of federal investment is, quite simply, wrong.

There is no better investment for the future health and prosperity of this country than STEM education. Not only has there been an explosion in science and technology jobs in recent decades, America's need for future STEM professionals will outpace non-STEM job growth by two fold (2012 NSF Science & Engineering Indicators). Consider the following story: a young boy grows up in a rural Minnesota town of 7,000 people. His K-12 years in the local public school, supported by federal STEM dollars, inspire him to pursue a chemistry degree at St. John's University. There, federally funded undergraduate training programs and scientific instrumentation enrich his learning experience and deepen his engagement as a young scientist. He receives federal STEM funding from the National Science Foundation to conduct an independent research project during his junior year. This leads to a summer research experience at the Mayo Clinic, supported again with federal STEM education dollars. Mayo offers him a spot in their doctoral program. Five and a half years later, he emerges with a PhD in biochemistry, advanced research skills, and a deep commitment to education. This story is, of course, mine. I am a product of the system that Rep. Kline categorizes as foolish. Currently, I lead an office for science outreach and public education at Northwestern University. Many of the programs I direct, including a five-year, $1.4 million education grant from National Institutes of Health, are designed to inspire urban, at-risk youth and teach them the critical thinking and evidence-based decision making skills essential for adult life. These programs are having an enormous impact on the community. For our Science Club program, we partnered with the Robert R. McCormick Boys & Girls Club to build a fully functional science lab in the club that serves sixty middle school youth each week. Science Club is guided by 25 Northwestern graduate student science mentors who are not only inspiring urban, disadvantaged kids, but also learning how they can apply their enthusiasm for science and technical skills as community volunteers. We have a robust and well-designed evaluation plan that is already indicating that our community-based mentorship model is working. For example, youth are choosing pre-health tracks in high school, inspired by their time in Science Club. None of this would have been possible without federal STEM education funding. We can and should hold all STEM education programs to high evaluation standards. But to simply make offhanded statements that categorize critically important and impactful programs as wasteful – well, it's just plain irresponsible. I respectfully offer that the GAO's primary research method – a one-hour web survey of high-level program directors – could not possibly come close to capturing the diversity and impact that STEM education programs offer. Are there federally funded programs that have fallen short? Sure. But these should not color the bigger picture. There are many, many successes that demonstrate the critical importance of federal investment in STEM education. To anyone who would like to see, first hand, the impact of STEM education funding: please consider this an invitation to visit the McCormick Boys & Girls Club in Uptown. Ask the Club's staff about the partnership we have built together. Ask the kids about the difference that Science Club has made in their lives. Then ask our graduate student mentors about the skills they have learned through our program. It really does make a difference.

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