THE PROGRESS OF STEM EDUCATION AS A NATIONAL POLICY ISSUE
Over a dozen Congresswomen attended the Million Women Mentors luncheon in early March. Million Women Mentors is a non-partisan organization that seeks to provide mentoring and support to young women in the STEM field in an attempt to curtail some of the troubling statistics related to women working in the STEM fields. For instance, women make only 92 percent as much as men for the same job and they make up only 26 percent of the STEM workforce. Just three out of 100 women pursuing a STEM Bachelor's degree will still be in the field ten years after graduation. In an effort to change this trend, women in Congress are working together to provide for better access to STEM education for all of America's most marginalized groups.
The day after this luncheon, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Kay Granger (R-TX) joined together to introduce the 21st Century STEM for Underrepresented Students Act. This legislation would seek to provide grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to fund research into STEM programs in the hopes of increasing engagement and retention of elementary and middle-school aged students from typically under-represented groups. As Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY) said at the luncheon, "When you give a girl a chance to build a robot when she's five or build a rocket when she's ten, she will have the inspiration and the know-how to become interested in those fields and see her future in those fields." As researchers continue to develop research that emphasizes the importance of providing early pathways into the STEM fields, it seems as if some in Congress are beginning to take these lessons to heart.
This is not to say that the men of the federal government have been ignoring issues with STEM education. President Obama's most recent budget proposal has called for a massive reorganization of how STEM education initiatives are funded so that they can become more responsive the ever-growing needs of the country's students. Further, the proposed budget calls for $170 million to be earmarked for the Department of Education to use in training efforts to better prepare STEM teachers to excel in the classroom. Additionally, new money has been requested for grants that would support innovative STEM teaching practices as well as grants that would support students who show promise in the STEM fields. The entire proposal seems to boil down to one central idea: STEM jobs will be a major player in tomorrow's economy. If today's STEM education programs are not adequately preparing students to meet these demands, then it is the job of the federal government to revamp and revitalize these efforts so that those who need help can best receive it.
However, not everything is so rosy for the future of STEM education. While it is true that STEM education enjoys an unprecedented level of prestige and that many policymakers are working on this issue, many analysts fear that these proposals will never come to pass. Most analysts have described the new Obama budget as dead on arrival. GovTrack places the likelihood that the 21st Century STEM for Underrepresented Students Act will pass at a measly 2 percent. Because this is an election year, there is a popular conception that nothing can get done in Congress. Policymakers are more interested in keeping their seats than solving the problems that they were sent to Washington to deal with. But students cannot wait. Every year that passes without STEM education reform at the national levels means that untold thousands of students are still slipping through the cracks. It means that the STEM gap that underrepresented minorities and women must contend with will not get any better. It means that the country is putting off ensuring its future for another year.
With a rapidly approaching shortfall in the number of skilled workers available to take up the jobs in tomorrow's booming STEM economy, the United States is quickly running out of "next years". Instead, it is the responsibility of everyone with a vested interest in STEM education to make this a national policy discussion this year so that real change can be sought and enacted. Further, it is time for STEM education to become a major policy point in political campaigns so that parents of all ages can know how their future representatives feel about the single thing that can do the most good for the future of the American economy.