By Ramya Sankar
The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), along with the STEM Education Coalition and other national groups hosted the two-day K-12 STEM Education Policy Conference last week in Washington, D.C. The conference consisted of three panels, each offering insight into current STEM education policy from a different perspective: the Administration, Congress and external stakeholders.
The first panel was moderated by Tom Guetling of Delta Education and featured Michael Lach, Special Assistant for STEM in the US Department of Education, and Steve Robinson, Special Assistant in the White House Domestic Policy Council. The recurring theme of the discussion was that the Department of Education deals with the entire education system, particularly focusing on:
1) Capacity building
2) Motivation and inspiration
3) Making sure the educational system is connected to other institutions (labs, businesses, universities, etc.)
Robinson reiterated the importance of STEM education and how President Obama and the Administration has been promoting the importance of getting youth excited about math and science. Policy at the federal level has been manifested as priorities in competitions for grant money. This includes the STEM priority in the Race to the Top funds and the Investing in Innovation grants. After brief remarks from both panelists, the audience got a chance to ask questions. Most questions revolved around professional development and identifying effective teachers. The panelists deflected many of these questions, saying that the federal government should not be driving these issues and it would be better for state and local authorities to determine solutions. In response to a question about how to include out-of-school-time partners such as afterschool programs in solutions to improve STEM education, they stated that the issue of strong and meaningful impact assessments are a major stumbling block for the informal science education field.
The second panel consisted of three Congressional staffers: Bess Caughram, Minority Staff, Science and Technology Committee; Peter Zamora, Office of Sen. Bingaman; and Chris Gaston, Office of Rep. Rush Holt. The Congressional panelists suggested that the most compelling argument to build Congressional support for prioritizing STEM education policy is highlighting the need for a skilled workforce and how it connects to jobs in their hometowns. They remarked that issues of equity and morality around STEM education do not appear to resonate as much as framing the issue in economic terms. But they did advise the audience that anecdotes and personal stories carry a great deal of weight and should be part of the conversation with Members of Congress.
The final panel consisted of representatives from NSTA, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, STEM Education Coalition and Washington Partners, LLC who presented the audience with a brief history of STEM education policy and the current state of legislation as well as some tools to make the most of meetings with their Members of Congress.
The conference as a whole allowed for a discussion on how to tackle some of the big issues in STEM education, particularly in science, but it did not answer a lot of the questions that participants had about concrete steps to take. The most important take away from the conference was that those in the STEM education field cannot work in isolation but rather must collaborate with other groups and institutions to ensure that students have the resources they need, including strong afterschool programs that work with community partners to pool resources and take actionable steps towards educating our future scientists and engineers.