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December surprise: Congress passes America COMPETES bill

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December surprise: Congress passes America COMPETES bill

In a surprise move, Congress sent the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (formerly called America COMPETES) to the President for his signature late last week. The legislation authorizes research investments and the STEM education investments of various science mission agencies such as NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Energy.

The Afterschool Alliance has worked for several years to ensure that language supportive of afterschool is included in this bill as we recognize the importance of building bridges between STEM professionals and the afterschool field. We are delighted to report that the final bill includes several provisions that recognize the importance of out-of-school learning for STEM. 

Of specific interest is Title III, the section on STEM education, and the following items in that title.

Section 301

In the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program, there is a discussion of innovative practices in STEM teacher recruitment and retention. This includes partnering with nonprofit or professional associations to provide the fellowship’s recipients with opportunities for professional development, as well as conducting pilot programs to improve teacher service and retention.

What it means for afterschool: This may provide an opening for afterschool providers to collaborate with schools of teacher education in innovative ways, including practicum placements for student teachers in afterschool STEM programs.  

Section 303

A STEM education advisory panel is to be set up jointly by the Secretary of Education, the Director of NSF, the NASA Administrator and the Administrator of NOAA to advise the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM).

This panel is required to have at least 11 members and include individuals from academic institutions, industry, and nonprofit organizations, including in-school, out-of-school, and informal education practitioners. The group will guide CoSTEM on “various aspects of federal investment in STEM education including ways to better vertically and horizontally integrate Federal STEM education programs and activities from pre-kindergarten through graduate study and the workforce, and from in-school to out-of-school in order to improve transitions for students moving through the STEM education and workforce pipelines.” 

What it means for afterschool: This provides an opening for afterschool advocates to nominate experts in informal STEM education who understand afterschool STEM programming deeply.  This perspective would be valuable and influential on the STEM education advisory panel.

Section 304

CoSTEM is responsible for reviewing the measures used by federal agencies to evaluate their STEM education activities and programs. 

What it means for afterschool: Afterschool stakeholders can engage in this conversation to ensure that appropriate measures are defined for informal and afterschool STEM learning.

Section 311

This section focuses on informal STEM education, and amends the STEM Education Act of 2015 to encourage ongoing partnerships between NSF and institutions involved in informal STEM learning, institutions of higher education, and education research centers.

Additional provisions

Finally, the bill directs the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor to examine apprenticeship programs, including the value of businesses using such programs. With an eye on improving equitable access to STEM education and STEM opportunities, NSF is improving its efforts to increase participation of underrepresented populations in STEM fields, including those from poor, rural and tribal communities. Afterschool programs will play a significant role in both this effort and placing students in internships—stay tuned to the Afterschool Snack to learn more; we’ll outline specific opportunities as this effort is fleshed out in the coming months and years.

Overall, the scientific and education communities are happy with this bipartisan bill even if it is not perfect. Afterschool advocates should also celebrate passage of this legislation as it showcases the increasing recognition of out-of-school learning as a key component of the STEM learning ecosystem.

For more information on the bill, please see the press release from the Senate Commerce Committee, where you can also download the actual bill text.   

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