STEM Education Hearings: Federal Agency Role, Laboratory Science

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Publication date: 
22 June 2007

Already this year, the House Science and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Research and Science Education has examined many aspects of U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, with more hearings to come. Among the topics explored so far, two recent hearings addressed the role of federal R&D mission agencies in K-12 education, while an earlier hearing focused on a legislative proposal to improve the science laboratory experience for high school students.

Education experts from around the country described their interactions with federal mission agencies, including DOE, NASA, NOAA, NIST, EPA, NIH, and FDA, at a May 15 hearing. They discussed the effectiveness and appropriateness of resources and assistance provided by those agencies. The witnesses recounted with enthusiasm many formal and informal educational collaborations with mission agencies, such as Saturday morning science sessions, ask-a-scientist online discussions, teacher summer institutes, films, workshops, and family nights. However, they pointed out that while the mission agencies have a substantial amount of content knowledge, they do not have expertise in pedagogy, classroom practice, curriculum materials, or teacher professional development. It is NSF, remarked National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) President Linda Froschauer, that supports innovative instructional approaches, conducts research, requires rigorous evaluations, and brings the research and science education communities together to improve curriculum and instruction. The "two major assets" that other R&D agencies can bring to K-12 education are their STEM workforce and their facilities, said Michael Lach, Director of Mathematics and Science for the Chicago Public Schools. He added that agency-developed curricula and lessons plans were frequently not helpful, especially if they were not easily adaptable to local concerns and state standards. The testimony of George Nelson, former astronaut and Director of STEM Education at Western Washington University, echoed this comment: "There is a huge inventory of poorly designed and under-evaluated mission-related curricula [that is] rarely used in classrooms and with no natural home in a coherent standards-based curriculum."

Horizon Research President Iris Weiss noted that such materials "may add to the incoherence" of the educational system. "Some teachers can pull together...materials and organize them into a coherent curriculum," she said, but most "have neither the time nor the capacity," and critical prerequisites may be neglected. She testified that more stringent criteria should exist for agency education programs: Do they target priority areas for K-12 education? Do they have the capacity to address those needs effectively and to evaluate the impacts? Do their efforts reach a large number of teachers or students? The witnesses suggested that the most appropriate roles for federal mission agencies might be workforce preparation in the form of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral support and experiences; the provision of data to be used in curriculum development; and opportunities for teachers, students and parents to be exposed to scientists and the conduct of science in informal settings.

Questioned about the recent report of the American Competitiveness Council (see, which found that few federal education programs have been rigorously evaluated, Weiss agreed,"there is no question we need to be doing a more rigorous job of evaluating programs." However, she noted that some types of evaluation, such as randomized controlled trials, might sound good in theory but were not necessarily practical in the real world of the classroom.

At a follow-up hearing on June 6, representatives of several federal R&D agencies (NSF, NASA, DOE, and NIH) described their K-12 education programs. Each agency had participated in development of the American Competitiveness Council (ACC) report, and the witnesses reported that the effort had caused their agencies to review, reinvigorate, and strengthen evaluation methodologies and coordination with other agencies. The ACC report also called for reconstitution of a subcommittee of the inter-agency National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to address STEM education and workforce issues. When questioned about how the NSTC subcommittee would operate and what its role would be, Cora Marrett, Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources at NSF, said it was too early to know because its charter was still being developed, but one task would be to maintain a catalogue of federal STEM education programs. She also stressed the "imperative for enhanced STEM education research" to build a knowledge base of what programs work, under what conditions, for what populations, and how they can be effectively scaled up. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), a mathematician and chair of the hearing, commented that evaluating the effectiveness of such programs was "the most difficult" challenge, and Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) declared that "Congress must authorize adequate evaluation capacity" for federal STEM education programs. They indicated that they would be looking to the NSTC subcommittee to track, coordinate, prioritize, and review K-12 STEM education programs across the government, and sought assurances that the agency representatives to this subcommittee would have sufficient stature within their agencies.

On March 8, the Research and Science Education Subcommittee heard testimony on the state of science laboratories in the nation's high schools. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) testified about his "Partnerships for Access to Laboratory Science" or "PALS" bill (H.R. 524). The legislation would "create a pilot program at NSF to study the best ways to train teachers in lab instruction; the best way to set up, staff, and manage labs; and ensure that labs have the best possible equipment, materials, and supplies," testified NSTA President Froschauer. Calling laboratory science "a high-priced luxury" that far too many public high schools cannot afford, she cited statistics from a 1995 General Accounting Office report that 42 percent of schools surveyed nationally reported they were "not well at all" equipped for laboratory science, with even larger percentages of low income schools not well equipped.

While it would seem silly "to play a sport without actually practicing, we have created a similar scenario in our high school science classrooms," said Arthur Eisenkraft, Director of the Center of Science and Math in Context at the University of Massachusetts, in his prepared statement. Eisenkraft was a member of a National Research Council panel that issued a report in 2005 on high school laboratory experiences. The panel found, he said, that most students have poor quality experiences in the science laboratory, and the effectiveness of science labs is hard to determine because the experiences - and even the definitions of a laboratory experience - vary so greatly. In its report, the panel proposed a definition, and a set of goals, for an appropriate high school laboratory experience. The 254-page report can be accessed and purchased from the National Academies Press (go to and search on "America's Lab Report"). Jerry Mundell, Adjunct Professor and General Chemistry Laboratory Manager at Cleveland State University, remarked that typical high school lab experiences do not motivate students, leading to incoming college freshman who often lack the skills and interest to "properly engage in a college chemistry course." He advocated better training and professional development for high school science teachers.

Provisions of H.R. 524, and its counterpart in the Senate, have been incorporated into broader competitiveness bills that have passed the House and Senate and are now due for reconciliation in conference (see