At a time of fiscal constraint and severe cuts to numerous federal programs, President Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget proposal confirms his commitment to strengthen science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. On numerous occasions–including during last month’s State of the Union address–the president has pointed to the importance of U.S. advancements in STEM for global competitiveness and for the health of our national economy and citizenry.
There are several promising points of emphasis as it concerns proposed funding for STEM fields:
- There is much needed emphasis on K-12 math and science preparation through funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), and Race to the Top.
- In addition, the president’s budget supports postsecondary STEM education via funding to a number of federal agencies already advancing the administration’s commitment to postsecondary STEM completion, including the U.S. Department of Education, National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health, and Department of Energy.
- Refreshing is the attention paid to points of transition across the STEM pipeline, supporting the administration’s “cradle to career” approach to education and workforce development. As the higher education literature has repeatedly shown, women and minority students most often leave STEM during moments of educational and career transition – from high school to the undergraduate years, between undergraduate and graduate education, and between postsecondary education and career.
- Another encouraging component is a proposed commitment to interdisciplinary fields. The STEM teaching and learning community has for years supported pedagogies that emphasize connections across disciplines, particularly for diverse learners. When students can see how their individual major connects to advancements in other STEM fields, it brings to light a larger picture that promotes real-world scientific applications, which has in turn been shown to increase undergraduate persistence in STEM.
A promising endeavor by NSF, in particular, provides a partial answer to harsh criticism the Obama administration received for its proposal to eliminate minority-serving institution-focused funding. The NSF budget is clear in stating that these programs will continue to exist in budget cycle 2012, with the addition of a new pilot endeavor: Transforming Broadening Participation through STEM (TBPS).
Under NSF’s Education and Human Resources directorate, TBPS will “engage the field in new approaches to broadening participation that can reach particular populations such as Hispanic-serving institutions.”
In all, the 2012 budget as proposed by President Obama presents an enormous opportunity for the STEM education community. A sharp focus by the administration on K-12 math and science education, dovetailed with a commitment to postsecondary completion for all fields, with an emphasis on undergraduate STEM degrees and related workforce advancement, is unprecedented.
From economic crisis comes creative opportunity. The administration, statehouses, and individual institutions alike have made, and will continue to make, tough decisions across education budgets. Yet what we must remember is the momentous commitment that policymakers and educators have collectively built to support inclusivity in STEM education. The populations that we must engage for the future of our nation’s health and prosperity are growing in size and so must our attention to support them. The president’s budget is one of many signals that support such efforts. Let us each find our own signal and let us remain dedicated to its message.
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Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.