Science, tech advocates eye increased federal resources

Six months into 2007, education in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM education, is finally getting much needed attention in Washington, education advocates and lawmakers say.

"The budget request contained the first meaningful increase for the National Science Foundation's education programs in many years, something the STEM ed community has really made a high priority," said James Brown, co-chairman of the STEM Education Coalition.

Aside from the president's actions, House and Senate appropriators are supporting substantial funding increases for NSF's STEM education programs this budget season, he said. The funding would go partly toward a math and science professional development program that produced measurable improvements in student proficiency at the elementary, middle- and high-school levels over a three-year period.

And Brown said it looks possible that the House and Senate will reach an agreement on major competitiveness legislation this summer, which would bring "a badly needed shot in the arm" to the NSF programs. Also looming over the horizon is reauthorization of the signature 2002 education law known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Despite many promising developments in Washington, students and teachers are still struggling in the STEM fields, according to Brown. "I am hopeful that these positive actions in Congress will soon be translated into real progress on the ground," he said.

Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, said she is optimistic that recent grants awarded by the Education Department will assist under-represented members of the population in pursuing STEM careers.

On June 29, the department awarded $22 million in grants to universities, state and local educational agencies, and nonprofits to devise strategies for tapping highly qualified individuals who do not have teaching credentials to teach core subjects, such as math, science and special education in high-need school districts.

That same day, the department gave 25 predominantly minority universities $3.5 million to better prepare ethnic minorities, especially minority women, for jobs in science and technology.

Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Tuesday that "it is critical" that Congress reauthorize a comprehensive higher education bill this year, as well as No Child Left Behind, to enhance America's technological and economic competitiveness. Enzi said the competitiveness legislation is expected to be "signed into law before the end of the year."

A spokeswoman for HELP Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said current federal efforts include grants, which Kennedy helped craft, that encourage students to pursue STEM majors. Legislative proposals backed by the committee would increase access to the grants, she said.

Democrats and Republicans on the House Science and Technology Committee noted that the panel has passed several measures aimed at boosting the quality and quantity of STEM teachers in the United States.

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