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House Panel Examines Private-Sector Efforts to Engage STEM Students
 

By Bill Leonard  1/15/2014

Although the federal government should be involved in improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, its role should be limited to providing support and making it easier for private-sector groups and schools to develop effective learning programs and curricula, a panel of witnesses testified during a Jan. 9, 2014, House Research and Technology Subcommittee hearing.

The subcommittee scheduled the hearing to learn more about private-sector programs that are designed to engage and encourage students in the STEM fields. As subcommittee members listened to testimony on the effectiveness of the private-sector initiatives they participated in a lively discussion of what Congress could do to improve STEM education in the United States.

“With the federal government spending nearly 3 billion dollars each year across 13 federal agencies on STEM education programs, we must ensure the government is leveraging, rather than duplicating, private-sector STEM education initiatives,” said subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon, R-Ind.

Addressing Educational Standards

Several witnesses told the subcommittee that by removing barriers and changing educational standards, Congress could make it easier for private-sector employers to develop effective partnerships with schools and colleges. In addition, increases in federal funding through education grants could make current STEM programs available to all K-12 students.

“We believe the federal government has a role to play and the unique ability to extend these types of programs so [that] they are accessible to students across the country,” said Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research & Development Corp. and founder of the nonprofit education initiative FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

Founded in 1989 and tasked with developing four STEM-based education programs, FIRST seeks to inspire students to become science and technology leaders by getting them involved in research programs that focus directly on STEM skills. According to Kamen and other witnesses at the hearing, FIRST has become one of the foremost STEM-related education programs in the United States and is branching out internationally. At the end of 2013 these programs had more than 350,000 K-12 students, a network of 130,000 volunteers, and 3,500 sponsors.

“The federal government can provide additional STEM funding by establishing grants for schools in underserved communities so that students and teachers in those communities are able to participate in programs like FIRST,” Kamen said.

He told the subcommittee that it was in everyone’s best interest to create and support STEM-related programs that develop home-grown talent, and he pointed to the federal government’s H-1B visa program as a potential source of funding. Specifically, Kamen suggested that Congress consider legislation that would allow the fees collected for H-1B visas to fund grants for the expansion of STEM education initiatives.

“Every year this country imports more than 100,000 workers under the H-1B visa program from countries around the world because the U.S. does not produce enough American-born STEM graduates,” Kamen testified. “Corporations are willing to pay enormous sums of money to gain access to those educated workers, amounting to more than $1 billion spent annually to overcome this issue.”

Commenting on Kamen’s suggestion to redirect H-1B visa fees to fund STEM education, Chairman Bucshon said, “It’s definitely a new and fresh idea, and you’ve given all of us on this subcommittee something to think about.”

Hadi Partovi, co-founder and CEO of Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science education, discussed the value of teaching computer coding to students of all ages. He described his organization’s One Hour of Code program, which seeks to demystify computer science by urging students to try computer coding through hour-long online tutorials.

“When we announced the Hour of Code in October, the goal to teach 10 million students for one hour was an ambitious one,” Partovi said. “The vision proved to be an enormous success. Last month nearly 20 million students participated in computer science, including one in four U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade.”

He told the subcommittee that even though technology has touched the lives of every person in the nation, the U.S. lacks quality educational programs in computer science for K-12 students and the subject is still not a required part of the educational curriculum.

“Only one in three technology-based jobs are in scientific or engineering industries; the rest are in fields like finance, transportation and manufacturing,” Partovi said. “While the emphasis has been on improving science, math and engineering skills, we are neglecting to teach adequate computer science skills. Most large and midsize businesses now have their own IT staffs, and smaller businesses must have someone on staff who understands how computer systems work.”

He asked the committee to consider changing government education standards by adding computer science to school curricula.

“Through the Code.org initiatives, we have given one in four students in the U.S. a taste of computer science,” Partovi said. “But it raises the question: Why isn’t this a fixed part of our school systems? Local, state and national leaders need to come together to bring computer science into the core of our nation’s education system.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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