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Science Education Experts Respond to Obama's Speech

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Obama delivering his 2012 State of the Union address

In his State of the Union address last night, President Barack Obama spent less time than in years past discussing his ambitions to reform science education. He referred to his administration's offer to let states opt out of No Child Left Behind (" ... grant schools flexibility to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test ..."). And he brought up the Common Core State Standards in math and language arts which 45 states plus the District of Columbia have now adopted ("we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning -- the first time that’s happened in a generation"). (By the way, a state survey out today from the Center on Education Policy reports that most states believe the new standards will improve students' skills in math, reading and writing but that many are struggling to pay for new curricula and teacher training).

I asked science education experts to weigh in on the president's remarks. More will be sending in reactions throughout the day, so check back. And please leave your own comments below.

 

Jon D. Miller, Director, International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research

President Obama understands both science and education more than any President in American history. His speech on Tuesday night included an important reminder of the importance of funding basic research. This year, he linked the need for expanded scientific and technical education with the revival of manufacturing employment in the U.S. This is an important linkage, but it is the first step in a longer process. The President argues that there are open jobs requiring technical skills and that community college programs can prepare students (younger and older) for these positions. This is a necessary short-term fix, but I expect that the President and Secretary Duncan know that an associate degree is not a ticket for long-term employment. The growth of science and technology will continue to demand higher levels of skill and education and associate degree programs designed in response to this initiative should be built as the first step toward a baccalaureate and post-graduate degrees. It is encouraging to have a President that understands and values both science and education and who welcomes the challenges of the 21st century.

 

Sharon Lynch, Professor, George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development; President-Elect, National Association for Research in Science Teaching

The President’s 2012 State of the” Union Speech was more about the economy and jobs than new programs in education. How to see the American Dream fulfilled unless you are the lucky child of a venture capitalist or banker? Social mobility and personal prosperity is likely going to involve work in a high tech industry or one that moves the U.S. closer to energy independence—STEM-related jobs and careers. There are at least twice as many such jobs going unfilled due to a work force that is not sufficiently STEM literate or not located where the jobs are. Increasingly, states and municipalities understand that the New American Community is likely going to involve business-education partnerships, including “Big High Tech Businesses” that produce high value items using new technologies, and linked to local education systems flexible and innovative enough to teach both adults and children. While the President did not dwell on specifics of these partnerships, our work on inclusive STEM-focused high schools suggests three things may be needed. The first challenge is how to ramp up the E (engineering) in STEM education. If the US does not have enough engineers, then it certainly does not have enough K-12 teachers able to teach engineering. This leads to second challenge; provided that we finally adopt (voluntary) common core science standards and assessments, we are also going to need new integrated, coherent K-12 STEM curriculum materials. There hasn’t been a major curriculum reform in decades (excepting innovative mathematics curricula). New STEM curriculum tools won’t look like those tired textbooks of the past, and put in the hands of creative and innovative teachers, should allow teachers strong in STEM disciplines the freedom to avoid re-inventing the curriculum wheel each day. These new materials would also provide video examples of how to teach integrated STEM. They would use technologies that are commonplace to anyone under the age of 25, introducing students to the boundless world of STEM possibilities, either during the school day or anytime outside of it. It is not hard to imagine bilingual materials that could help English Language Learners access STEM concepts and activities, escaping the isolation of mono-English classrooms. Moreover, these new materials would boost the ability and confidence of elementary school teachers who do not have adequate STEM backgrounds to teach more than reading and math computation. That leads to the third challenge, issues of scale and implementation. Currently each state struggles to produce its own standards, frameworks, assessments and curricula. This is hugely expensive and demonstrably ineffective. Why not provide educators with the choice to use the best set of curriculum materials that the nation can develop, a huge economy of scale? The third challenge is to stimulate local communities to come together to develop innovative variations that match their settings and the needs of their children. Business and community partnerships, including the arts councils and museums, would provide the rigor, the relevance and the relationships that allow all children to have a shot at the American Dream.

Adam V. Maltese, Assistant Professor of Science Education, Indiana University

In his SoTU address President Obama declared "The State of our Union is getting stronger." While he attempted to defend this statement throughout the rest of his speech, education - specifically STEM education - did not get nearly as much focus as it did last year. The President threw out some provocative - but not new - ideas for K-12 including suggestion of a requirement to keep all students in school until they graduate high school or turn 18. The President also said we should keep the good teachers and reward the best. Sure! I'm on board with this, but how do we do this fairly and effectively?

As usual, the speech left me with more questions than answers. The focus of much of the edu-speak within the address was on higher education and higher costs for earning degrees. This is also where one of the President's points raised my greatest concern with relation to STEM issues. President Obama laid down an edict to colleges and universities to halt increases in tuition or risk the loss of funding from taxpayers. While it's not within the purview of the federal government to determine budgets for public institutions of higher education, our state government in Indiana is a few steps ahead of the President and already cut higher ed funding for the last few years. My concern here is that continued reductions in funding will ultimately affect the availability of money to attract top science faculty and students, to build state of the art research facilities, and for educational outreach efforts. Additionally, this will likely impact the availability of internal seed money used to fund ideas and efforts that often lead to the large scale R&D projects the President and other politicians love to tout.

James Gentile, President and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement

U.S. economic preeminence has depended for more than a century on scientific and technological innovation, and President Obama addressed key issues for sustaining our leadership in global innovation. In his "blueprint for an economy that's built to last", he reminded the nation that "innovation also demands basic research" and called on Congress to "support the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet." He focused heavily on improving education and job readiness, setting a goal of training "two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job", noting that "growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job." Citing the role that foreign students play in research labs, he called on Congress to "stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs." And he emphasized his commitment to clean energy, a field ripe for innovation, saying, "I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany." The foundation that I lead is in the forefront of supporting scientific innovation in solar energy conversion, and the President is right to advocate U.S. leadership in clean energy technologies. Innovation is the key to American jobs.

Francis Eberle, Executive Director, National Science Teachers Association

Last night in his SOTU address, President Obama called for more skilled workers in the science and technology industry and announced a national commitment to training 2 million Americans in these and other areas. He talked about new science and technology innovations needed to help companies grow jobs and about increasing basic research funding in the sciences. The Administration wants to support 600k new science jobs with new clean energy sources that will reduce our dependency on foreign oil. The president is also seeking support from Congress so that engineers can rebuild the roads and bridges that make up our nation’s infrastructure. Although science education wasn't mentioned specifically, its pretty clear that the jobs of tomorrow and much of our future depends on STEM, and STEM education.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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