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Obama launches new STEM initiatives

President Barack Obama on Nov. 23 announced the launch of several nationwide programs to help motivate and inspire students to excel in science and math, including a grassroots effort called “National Lab Day” and a White House science fair.

Leadership tomorrow is dependent on how America’s students are educated today, Obama said in morning remarks.

“The key to meeting these challenges–to improving our health and well-being, to harnessing clean energy, to protecting our security, and succeeding in the global economy–will be reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation,” he said. “The hard truth is that for decades we’ve been losing ground. One assessment shows American 15-year-olds now rank 21st in science and 25th in math when compared to their peers around the world.”

Obama was referring to results from the most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. Some experts caution that PISA is different from other tests, especially those in the United States, and makes American kids look worse than other tests do.

Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren reiterated Obama’s sentiment in a conference call with reporters.

“The president has been clear throughout his campaign that STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] is a priority, not only because we need today’s students to become tomorrow’s leaders in innovation and help our economy, but also because we need to increase STEM interest and skills overall for everybody. We need a science-savvy citizenry to help decide STEM policy and much more,” he said.

Obama identified three overarching priorities for STEM education: increasing STEM literacy so all students can think critically in these subject areas; improving the quality of math and science teaching so American students no longer are outperformed by those in other nations; and expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.

To help meet these goals, Obama announced a series of high-powered partnerships involving leading companies, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and science and engineering societies, all of which are dedicated to moving American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next 10 years.

The partnerships include:

• Time Warner Cable’s “Connect a Million Minds” Campaign, which aims to connect more than one million students to highly engaging after-school STEM activities that already exist in their areas.
• Discovery Communications’ “Be the Future” Campaign, which will create content that reaches more than 99 million homes, including a public service announcement campaign and the creation of interactive education content through Discovery Education.
• Sesame Street’s Early STEM Literacy Initiative will consist of a major focus on science and math for young children with “My World is Green and Growing.” The program will be part of a two-year science initiative designed to increase positive attitudes toward nature, deepen children’s knowledge about the natural world, and encourage behavior that shows respect and care for the environment.
• National STEM Game Design Competitions, which will be sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, Sony Computer Entertainment America, the Entertainment Software Association, and its partners, is a set of nationwide competitions that include the design of the most compelling, freely available STEM-related video games for children and youth. (See “Competition seeks ways to transform learning.”)
• “National Lab Day” is a grassroots effort to bring hands-on learning to 10 million students by upgrading science labs, supporting project-based learning, and building communities of support for STEM teachers.

On the conference call, Domestic Policy Director Heather Higginbottom pointed out that, as Obama said in his speech, solving the STEM crisis will require “all hands on deck,” meaning parents, students, private and public institutions, and teachers need to work together.

One reporter noted that many teachers aren’t highly qualified to teach STEM disciplines and asked what the administration would do about this. “Teacher quality is one of the major areas that the [Education Department] wants to reform. We’re hoping these types of national projects will inspire teachers to want to take part in STEM,” Higginbottom said.

Holdren added that parents are crucial in stoking students’ desire to learn about STEM subjects, and he hopes parents and kids will reinforce each other’s enthusiasm.

To help lead the “Educate to Innovate” initiative, Obama has tapped Xerox Chief Executive Ursula Burns, former Intel Corp. CEO Craig Barrett, Time Warner Cable Inc. CEO Glenn Britt, and former astronaut Sally Ride.

Burns, a mechanical engineer, joined Xerox as a student intern nearly 30 years ago and became CEO in July. She said in a statement that companies like Xerox depend on the fresh ideas of people to succeed.

“If we inspire young people today, we secure our ability innovate tomorrow,” she said.

In an afternoon event, a coalition of educators, science and engineering associations, and philanthropic organizations launched National Lab Day as a way to bridge the gap between scientists and teachers.

Jack D. Hidary, chairman of National Lab Day, encouraged others to get involved in the grassroots effort through its web site,, which automatically will match volunteers to requests from educators on the basis of geography and interests. The web site also provides resources and ideas for hands-on learning experiments and invites the public to suggest new materials.

“Our children deserve a world-class science and math education that includes exciting, hands-on lab experiences,” Hidary said. “Whether you are a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, a ‘Mythbusters’ fan, a tinkerer, or a parent, you can help bring students the enjoyment of learning through real challenges.”

Thomas H. Lane, president of the American Chemical Society, said National Lab Day would elevate hands-on learning to an entirely new level.

“I am proud to be a chemist, improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry,” he said. “And I can’t wait to share my passion for chemistry and the related science with children, my community, and those policy makers that helped all of this happen.”

Several companies are helping with the National Lab Day web platform, including Pivotal Labs, which develops online platforms that foster innovation, ePals Inc., a social network optimized for K-12 learning, Donors Choose, an online platform for teachers to connect directly with donors, and Maker Faire, which is supplying project designs and ideas for the site.

Additionally, Obama announced the launch of a new science fair to be held at the White House each year.

“We’re going to have an annual science fair at the White House with the winners of national competitions in science and technology. If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too,” he said. “Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.”

Associate Editor Meris Stansbury contributed to this article. Material from the Associated Press also was used.


Time Warner Cable’s “Connect A Million Minds” Campaign

Discovery Communications’ “Be the Future” Campaign

Sesame Street’s Early STEM Literacy Initiative

National STEM Game Design Competitions

National Lab Day

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