Summit: Save STEM or watch America fail

Two years after a report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” warned that the United States is falling behind in math and science education, endangering America’s competitiveness in the global economy, education leaders, lawmakers, and cabinet members met for a national summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss what progress–if any–has been made in closing the gap. Their verdict: The U.S. needs to make a greater investment in critical math, science, and research programs for these efforts to succeed.

In the two years since the National Academies issued its “Gathering Storm” report, Congress passed a bill called the America COMPETES Act, which outlined measures to improve math and science research and education. The legislation called for expanding science research by doubling the basic research budgets for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Defense. It also created programs to hire and train more highly qualified math and science teachers and increase the number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes in underprivileged schools.

But the bill was only an authorization, not an appropriation, and lawmakers failed to fund many of these programs in the 2008 federal budget. (See “Final 2008 budget a mixed bag for schools.“)

Though Congress passed many of the measures recommended by the “Gathering Storm” report, “we’re [just] now in the process of passing appropriations to support those actions,” acknowledged Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

“Authorizations are not enough,” agreed Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. “We won’t get anywhere without funding.”

Private-sector funding from Exxon Mobil, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has supported the creation of a project called the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). In its first year, NMSI rolled out grants to launch AP Training and Incentive programs in seven states, as well as replicate a math and science teacher-training program called UTeach at 13 universities. (See “Schools aim to solve huge math problem.”) But summit panelists said the federal government needs to step up its support for these kinds of initiatives, too.

Panelists cited many examples of success, such as the largest initial public offering in history and the launch of a new research university with a day-one endowment of $10 billion (equal to what it took MIT 142 years to accumulate).

Meris Stansbury

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