Chairman George Miller (D-CA) opened a recent House Committee on Education and Labor hearing on “Innovation in Education through Business and Education STEM Partnerships” with a statement calling for a redoubling of efforts to make math and science education a priority in schools. Witnesses included PGA golfer Phil Mickelson and Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
Chairman Miller began his comments, saying that U.S. students are “falling behind” in STEM subjects. Miller went on to cite a recent National Mathematics Advisory Panel report that characterized the nation’s system for teaching math as “broken.” In reference to a May hearing on that report, where committee members heard that teachers are not receiving adequate training and support, Miller remarked, “We cannot expect our teacher to teach what they themselves do not know.” To that end, Miller said that he is a “firm believer that the best thing we can do to help our children succeed in math [and] science… is to invest more in the success of their teachers.” Miller added that the business community can “play a key role in this effort.”
Ranking Member Buck McKeon (R-CA) called the hearing “a natural successor to what we heard in May.” McKeon went on to say that “the No Child Left Behind Act was built on one simple goal, that every child in America must be able to read and do math at grade level. He added, “We recognize that proficiency in reading and math are necessary in order for our students to thrive in more advanced subjects including physics, engineering… and all the STEM fields.” McKeon emphasized that Congress was aware of STEM education problems, saying “there seems to be no shortage of federal programs and funding streams focused on STEM advancement.” McKeon explained that there are 207 federal STEM programs totaling more than $3 billion in FY04. According to McKeon, “federal investment alone is not enough to spur innovation and advancement.”
Mickelson, who is also the co-founder of the Mickelson Exxon Mobil Teachers Academy, spoke after a brief commercial was shown to the committee in which he explains that “math and science is everywhere.” Mickelson and his wife Amy partnered with Exxon Mobil to create a teacher training program for third through fifth grade teachers. In 4 years, 1,400 teachers have attended the academy.
Mickelson was followed by Dr. Ramona Chang, the Director of Curriculum for the Torrance Unified School District in Torrance, California. Chang spoke about the importance of the Mickelson-Exxon Academy, and called for systemic change in teaching methods. After describing the academy experience, Chang explained that the lasting virtue of the program has been the growth of collaborative planning between different grade levels.
Ride focused her comments on the importance of encouraging women to pursue STEM careers. Quoting Carl Sagan, Ride said, “It is suicidal to create a society that depends on science and technology in which no one knows anything about science and technology.” Ride followed up by saying that, “it’s really ironic that our society that relies so much on science and technology… now puts so little value or emphasis on science education.” Ride commented that “it is critical to create a scientifically literate citizenry,” because “to be a responsible citizen, to be able to vote intelligently… the kids of today are going to need a good background in science and math.”
On the subject of women in the sciences, Ride said, “the number of women are still lagging behind the number of men, particularly in physics, which is my field, and engineering.” Ride noted that statistics indicate elementary school students are very interested in science, but female students somewhat less so. Explaining the importance of these figures, Ride said, “In fourth grade fully two-thirds of our kids still like science, the schools haven’t beaten it out of them yet.” She continued, “starting at about fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, we start to loose both the boys and the girls, but we loose girls at greater numbers than boys.” Ride suggested that the reason girls lose interest in science is because of the messages society sends to girls that they internalize and feel discouraged by.
Tom Luce, President of the National Math and Science Initiative, Inc. spoke next. Luce declared that in reference to STEM education pilot programs, “we have lit a thousand pilots, but we have never lit the central heating system.” Luce discussed two NMSI programs that have been taken to a national scale—the AP Training & Incentive Program and the UTeach Program. In closing, Luce emphasized that the nation faces a STEM teaching crisis saying, “in Maryland two years ago… there was one physics teacher who graduated with a content degree.”
Dr. Carlo Parravano of the Merck Institute for Science Education, Patty Sullivan of IBM, Brian Wells, Chief Systems Engineer at Raytheon, and Melandy Lovett of Texas Instruments also offered testimony to the committee. Parravano explained how Merck works to strengthen all aspects of a districts science program, and called for better student assessment tools. Sullivan stressed that STEM education policies must “focus on the earliest stages of K-12.” Wells noted that Raytheon employs 72,000 people worldwide, with one-half being employed as engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and technicians. Lovett noted TI’s stake in the health of the STEM workforce, and the company’s dedication to improving student achievement in STEM subjects.
During the question and answer period, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) delivered an impassioned plea for greater science education investment. Holt said, “Fifty years ago… we said we would produce a generation of scientists and engineers like the world had never seen, and we did, and we left behind about 80 percent of the population. We established and reinforced the idea that science is for scientists.” He later continued, “I’m much more concerned about the other 80 or 90 percent of the population being able to think critically.” Holt said that the public needed to be scientifically literate to empirically review “new and improved” product claims, and whether or not to mix bleach and ammonia. Holt also added that a scientifically critical mindset would aid member of Congress as they consider new oil leases.