With the nation facing a serious diversity gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and employment, federal funding for STEM education is increasing, but still playing catch-up. While experts say this funding in low-income and minority communities could be more robust, the greatest need resides in the informal learning sector (e.g. summer camps), where limited evidence is available about which programs are most effective, making increased investment a blind gambit.
In his budget for 2015, President Barack Obama sought $2.9 billion for STEM education efforts, a 3.7 percent increase over the 2014 funding levels. According to James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, an alliance of business education professional groups that works to raise awareness about the importance of STEM education, that figure of almost $3 billion is spread across some 220 federal STEM education programs, about a third of which are diversity focused.
“From just a big picture perspective, the biggest challenge we have within that pool of STEM resources, is that it’s really, really diffuse,” said Brown. “If you take $3 billion and you divide it by 220, that means most of those programs are relatively small.”
The single largest program solely focused on STEM, says Brown, is the Math and Science Partnership Program at the U.S. Department of Education, which has an annual budget of about $150 million and was established by the No Child Left Behind Act under the George W. Bush administration.
“For a lot of states, that program is the only source of dedicated funding for the STEM subjects,” said Brown. He noted that most states do not have specific earmarks for STEM education in their education budgets.
Considering that the Math and Science Partnership Program only dates back to the previous administration, this means many states have a limited pool of dedicated resources to address STEM education priorities for less than 15 years.
According to Nick Greer, director of science for the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS), the city has been able to take advantage of what is known as the Investing in Innovation grant (or I-3) to help improve its STEM education efforts, but they are relatively new resources.
“The Investing in Innovation grant, and other grants that exist from the United States Department of Education federally are fairly new. I3 was an innovative grant brought to the [U.S. Department of Education] . . . and I think the first year of it was in 2010, when it was released.”
Michael Thomas, director of BCPSS’s Office of Learning to Work, which includes career and technology education, says the city has also been able to take advantage of Carl Perkins Act grants, and while these grants have been around for some time, STEM specific reserve grants are a more recent phenomenon. “Within the past, maybe, four to five years,” Thomas said.
While there could always be more federal funding available for such efforts, the problem of how to address the digital divide through education funding is muddled by the nature of some of the educational challenges driving the diversity gap in the first place.
“There’s a massive opportunity gap that a lot of people talk about, and what that usually means is parents in low socioeconomic status sometimes don’t have the wherewithal or the ability to provide or allow their students to get into programs in the summer or after school that actually help to hone [STEM skills], that our students’ counterparts five miles away in [neighboring suburban counties] have access to very quickly and easily,” said Greer. He added that BCPSS strives to change the balance of that equation by providing more robust informal programming.
Summer and afterschool programs are known as informal learning spaces, according to Brown. He would like to see overall funding for STEM education efforts increased. There is, however, little information on which informal learning programs are effective, making a solution more complicated than simply increasing funding.
“It’s not so much that we don’t spend enough on STEM education as an aggregate – I mean, that’s a challenge for every education sector. We can always be spending more on education, [but] it’s a matter of how to spend it effectively,” said Brown.
“Do we have enough money to do everything we ever wanted to do, the answer is [no]. But I think that, at a certain level, we’re leveraging the dollars that are available to us in the best possible ways and making more [out] of those dollars by other partnerships,” said Greer.
Those partnerships range from collaborations with institutions of higher learning like Johns Hopkins, non-profits like the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, as well as employers operating in the area such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
“With the partnerships, it’s not just about money and assets, it’s also about opportunities for students,” said Thomas. “Because at the end of the day, when we graduate students, we need to have very robust post-secondary opportunities for them to where they can support themselves and support a family. So partnerships also allow us to understand the opportunities that are available to students and hopefully develop the pipelines that get students into those opportunities.”
For Brown, that sort of focus on the practical application of STEM skills to the economy is key, as most middle-class jobs today, and certainly those that will be created in the future, require STEM skills. Brown says this means we can no longer think in terms of STEM jobs versus non-STEM jobs, but have to think of all jobs fitting somewhere along a spectrum of STEM skills.
“STEM skills are part of a new literacy, almost,” said Brown. “They’re essential to be a good citizen, they’re essential to be a participant in the modern economy. We don’t, in absolute terms, need more rocket scientists necessarily, we just need a lot more people to be educated in the STEM subjects generally so that they’re prepared for the vast variety of jobs that are going to be created in the future.”
In Baltimore, Thomas says, the school system has partnered with Code.org, a non-profit organization that works to bring coding into school curricula and increase the number of women and persons of color involved in coding, to make sure their students are learning economically viable skills.
In struggling communities, efforts like these, says Brown, are among the best uses of federal and state dollars because of their immediate relevance to current and future economic opportunities.
“If you’re looking at this from an equity standpoint, if I’m going to a school and I’m not going to get STEM literacy as a component of my school, then that’s a failed school in terms of elevating my community,” said Brown.