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Advancing STEM Education

This guest editorial is by Ted Kaufman, Democratic senator from Delaware.

This is a critical moment in our nation’s history, with great opportunities that require innovative solutions. Engineers and scientists will be at the center of revolutionizing our approaches to deciphering these crucial issues: how we produce and consume energy, revitalize our health care system, and maintain our nation’s security.

I am honored to be a U.S. senator at this time in our history, but even more so to be a U.S. senator who is an engineer. That’s because I believe the key to the future of our country—and the world—rests on our ability to use science, technology, engineering, and math, the four STEM subjects, to solve the biggest problems we face. Solving those problems, of course, will in turn create the jobs of tomorrow.

We don’t know where the next generation of innovation will come from. That is the nature of innovation. But we must have a national innovation policy, one that generates greater interest in STEM and actually leads to the training and graduation of more scientists and engineers.

The numbers state loudly and clearly why this need is more pressing than ever. In 1985, for example, 77,572 individuals received bachelor’s degrees in engineering—the highest number ever recorded. In 2007, however, that number had fallen to 68,274. This precipitous decline occurred at the same time that the total number of undergraduate degrees rose to 1,541,704 from 990,877. This trend must be reversed.

There are four things the federal government can do, and is doing with bipartisan support, to promote STEM education.

First, we can build a new generation of engineers through policies that promote STEM education. To help see this through, in February I joined a bipartisan group of senators to introduce the Engineering Education for Innovation Act—or the “E-Squared” for Innovation Act. This legislation authorizes the secretary of education to award competitive planning and implementation grants to states for the purpose of integrating engineering education into K–12 instruction and curriculum.

Second, we can promote policies that encourage women and underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in engineering. Women earn 58% of all bachelor’s degrees, but they constitute only 18.5% of those awarded in engineering. African Americans hold only 4.6% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering, and Hispanic Americans only 7.2%. We can and must do better.

Last year, another bipartisan group of 13 senators joined me in asking the Appropriations Committee for more funding to help increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities from rural areas in STEM fields. The Agriculture Appropriations bill, which was signed into law last October, includes $400,000 to fund research and extension grants at land-grant universities for women and minorities studying STEM subjects. This is a small but important first step that we can continue to build on from year to year.

Third, we can help inspire more young people to pursue science and engineering in the growing clean energy economy. As part of the “Educate To Innovate” effort, President Barack Obama announced an annual science fair at the White House, so that, as he said, “scientists and engineers stand side-by-side with athletes and entertainers as role models.”

Finally, we must continue to support research and development, a challenge that will require significant federal as well as private investment. A forthcoming report from the Science Coalition features 100 companies, including Google, Cisco Systems, and SAS, whose launches can be directly traced to university research sponsored by a federal agency.

One of my favorite images is of a sailboat cruising in the Delaware Bay. You can construct a perfect sailboat, outfit it with the best sails, and operate it with the most skilled crew. But if the wind is not blowing, you will not go anywhere.

Right now, STEM education in the U.S. is that sailboat, and right now we have the wind at our backs. Let’s take advantage of that opportunity. Let’s all work together on promoting and expanding STEM education for our country and the world.

Sen. Ted Kaufman

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