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Competitiveness Bill Seeks To Attract Minorities To STEM Fields

A multi-billion dollar competitiveness bill headed for President Bush’s desk has several key provisions to attract more minority students to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The America Competes Act would authorize new spending on math, science and technology issues through the rest of the decade, much of it focused on the National Science Foundation. But tucked into the bill are several provisions at the U.S. Department of Education and elsewhere that may directly benefit minority students.

Under one provision, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings will create outreach, internship and other experiential learning programs for at-risk students. Spellings is to undertake the initiative in cooperation with historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian institutions.

The prime targets for the program are K-12 minority students with the goal of encouraging more to pursue careers in the STEM professions. The program would receive initial funding of $7.5 million a year.

The bill also would authorize summer and after-school programs to attract females and minorities toward STEM careers. A separate provision would bring teachers from high-poverty schools to colleges and universities for research seminars and instructional activities they could bring back to their students.

Other provisions allot $22 billion in long-term funding for the National Science Foundation, much of it for more scholarships and STEM-related initiatives.

“We have allowed ourselves to get behind, we are investing less than almost any other developed country, and we must step up to the plate now,” says U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Tex., a Congressional Black Caucus member. “The time has come.”

The bill contains many provisions originally found in a National Academies’ report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” During House and Senate floor debates, members repeatedly noted that the bill is an overdue plan to prevent the United States from falling behind in math and science.

“It is something I think people will write about for a long time. It is going to improve America’s stature in the world and allow us to be more competitive,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Other provisions would:

·       Provide early career awards of up to $125,000 for promising scientists and engineers, with required outreach to minority-serving colleges;

·        Fund an Education Department initiative to better align K-12 math and science curricula with college-level courses;

·        Double NSF spending on partnerships that encourage cooperation between colleges and public schools;

·        Provide $151 million in aid so that students can pursue a STEM discipline in college while also seeking teacher certification;

·        Allot $125 million for projects to help science professionals obtain both a master’s degree and teaching credentials.

For NSF, the bill would require the agency to gather data on the technology infrastructure at minority-serving colleges and to study barriers to increasing the number of minorities in STEM fields. For the latter study, researchers would identify promising strategies to increase enrollments.

Lawmakers say they expect President Bush to sign the bill.

– Charles Dervarics


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