Successful STEM Education Rests on Quality, Not Necessarily Quantity
As part of the Committee’s continuing discussion on innovation and U.S. competitiveness, the Research Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science convened today to continue exploring means of attracting students to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and insuring those students are prepared for the job force of the future.
While typical discussions on this issue tend to focus on the hard numbers of STEM students graduating each year, Science Democrats contended that the quality of the graduates must not be overlooked.
"I believe the key issue is not numbers so much as it is the quality of STEM graduates and the capabilities they develop during their post-secondary education," said Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO). "Ultimately, the U.S. cannot out-produce the world in the number of new science and engineering graduates. Rather, we must ensure that our educational system produces graduates with capabilities that set them apart, so that they become successful innovators, life-long learners, and productive members of the nation’s workforce."
Hearing witness Dr. Carl Wieman, the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and a Distinguished Professor of Physics of the University of Colorado at Boulder, testified that "…unless you improve science education at the college level first, you are wasting your time and money on trying to make major improvements in K-12 [education]."
"Words each of us must take seriously," remarked Science Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN). "That’s why I introduced H.R. 4434, which requires science faculty to work with education faculty to develop courses of instruction and teaching procedures specifically tailored to science and math majors, who also agree to pursue teaching credentials."
"The bill provides generous scholarships to these students," added Rep. Gordon. "But, as Dr. Wieman suggests, the key part is introducing necessary reforms to create an effective undergraduate educational experience for the future teachers."
Various suggestions for educational reforms were offered by the witnesses, but on one point the distinguished panelists were unanimous – programs for improving teacher preparation and in-service teacher professional development in the areas of math and science belong at the National Science Foundation (NSF), rather than at the Department of Education. The panelists also agreed that the undergraduate science education effort at NSF should double in lock-step with the President’s proposal to double the entire NSF budget over the next ten years.
Current indicators are encouraging, but maintaining sufficient numbers of STEM graduates in the future will require higher participation by minorities and by women, in particular. Committee Democrats feel that improvement of undergraduate STEM education rests on increasing the importance of undergraduate teaching to the faculty reward system and implementing teaching methods and curricula materials that attract student interest in STEM courses and encourage persistence in degree programs.
Ranking Member Gordon introduced a package of legislation last fall to enact such reforms. The legislation is based on the widely acknowledged National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm which compiled expert direction on steps the U.S. must take to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
In addition to H.R. 4434, 10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds Science and Math Scholarship Act; the Gordon bills also include H.R. 4435, Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) Act and H.R. 4596, Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research Act.