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Obama: STEM education a must-have

Student engagement in STEM education is necessary for the nation's success.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is of the utmost importance to all students and is critical to U.S. competitiveness, said President Obama at an April 20 town hall event held on Facebook’s Palo Alto, Calif. campus.

“My name is Barack Obama, and I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie,” Obama said as he introduced himself. He referred to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, who is known for his casual workplace attire.

Obama was the first sitting head of state to visit Facebook’s brick-and-mortar home and the latest big-name visitor to the tech-savvy region in Northern California that gave rise to social media and the personal computer.

Questions came from pre-screened online submissions or hand-picked Facebook employees, and ranged in topic from the national debt and immigration to education and health care.

“It used to be that the argument around education always revolved around the left saying we just need more money, and the right saying we should just blow up the system because public schools aren’t doing a good job,” Obama said, as the conversation turned to education. “And what you’re now seeing is people recognizing we need both money and reform. It’s not an either-or proposition; it’s a both-and proposition.”

Emphasizing STEM education—especially to girls and minority students–is one of the most important efforts the U.S. can make if it hopes to produce college- and career-ready students, Obama said.

“We’ve got to do such a better job when it comes to STEM education,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons that we had our first science fair at the White House…because we want to start making science cool. That’s how we’re going to stay competitive for the future.”

Recent federal efforts, including programs such as Race to the Top and Investing In Innovation, have encouraged districts to think creatively, examine each aspect of their education system, and come up with solutions to better inform teachers and to keep students actively engaged in learning.

The Race to the Top program is one of the administration’s hallmark education initiatives. Districts apply for funds and submit plans detailing how they will be accountable for top-notch education in all areas, from teacher training and recruitment, to professional development, to data collection and decision-making.

“I think the Race to the Top stuff that you guys have done is one of the most under-appreciated and most important things that your administration has done,” said Zuckerberg, while reading a question about overhauling the U.S. educational system so that it meets the needs of modern students.

“The most important thing to a good education is making sure we’ve got a good teacher in front of that classroom,” Obama said. “And so providing more support for teachers, recruiting the best and brightest into teaching, making sure that they’re compensated, but also making sure that they’re performing–that’s hugely important.”

Obama said that constant feedback, along with usable data about student achievement, is necessary to inform instruction.

School leaders need access to “real, good data that you can present to the teacher while they’re still teaching that child and say, ‘You know what, this child is falling behind in math; here are some ways to…improve their performance,’” he said.

With the No Child Left Behind reauthorization creeping closer, Obama said he hopes a federal education law “that will embody some of the best information that we have about how to initiate good school reform” will be in place before the 2012 election.

But even with large federal involvement in education reform, Obama told attendees that the government can’t enact reforms and overhaul education alone.

“I always hear stories about how we can’t find enough engineers, we can’t find enough computer programmers,” he said. “You know what—that means our education system is not working the way it should.”

Creating a culture that lauds an interest and participation in STEM activities is an important first step.

“There has got to be a shift in American culture, where once again we buckle down and we say, ‘This stuff is important,’” he said. “We’ve got to lift our game up when it comes to technology, and math, and science.”

Despite federal budget challenges, Obama said it is still possible to invest in basic technology and research.

“We can still make investments in education, so we’ve already expanded the Pell Grant program so that more young people can go to college,” Obama said. “We’re investing more in STEM. We can still…invest in the next generation of broadband and wireless, and make sure everybody has access to the internet. We can do all those things while still bringing down the deficit medium term.”

At the event’s conclusion, Zuckerberg presented Obama with a hooded Facebook sweatshirt, the CEO’s signature attire.

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