STEM fields & STEM Education Research Paper Starter

STEM fields & STEM Education

Since the United States made the transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education has risen in prominence on the national agenda. In the 1950s and 1960s, science and math education garnered national attention in light of the shocking Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellites and the resultant space race that led to the first moon landing in 1969. A perceived lack of focus on science education in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, coupled with concern from the United States National Academies and others over a trend of low science and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, led President George W. Bush to announce the American Competitiveness Initiative in 2006, which resulted in the passage of the America Competes Act of 2007, a broad-based science education funding scheme administered through the National Science Foundation. Part of the act is designed to address what many perceive to be a critical shortage of math and science educators that, if left unchecked, could affect the nation's economic and national security.

Keywords America Competes Act; American Competitiveness Initiative; Knowledge-based EconomyManufacturing Economy; National Assessment of Educational Progress; National Science Foundation; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Space Race; Sputnik; STEM; United States National Academies


STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education has become ever more important in today's knowledge-based economy. The paradox is that, according to data collected in 2013 by the STEM Education, the demand for STEM jobs is growing globally at precisely the same time as American students are becoming less capable of filling them:

?• STEM occupations are expected to grow 1.7 times faster than non-STEM occupations from 2008 to 2018.

• In 2009, 34 percent of American eighth-graders — barely a third — ranked proficient or better on a national math assessment, and more than a quarter ranked below the basic level.

• Of those students entering college with plans to major in a STEM field, less than 40 percent graduate with a STEM degree (STEM Education Coalition, 2013).

Historical Background

It is important to give some historical context to these numbers, and a good place to begin is the middle of the twentieth century, the last time American interest in STEM education was so low.

The Sputnik Effect

On October 4, 1957, during the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched a metallic probe known as Sputnik I into space. The culmination of months of intense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, it was the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. In a 1957 newsreel broadcast, Ed Herlihy of Universal-International News proclaimed, "Today a new moon is in the sky — a 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket ... one of the great scientific feats of the age" ("New Moon," 1957). On November 3, the Soviets launched Sputnik II.

Sputnik sparked a nationwide push for better science and math education in the United States. Since the Soviets used advanced rocketry to launch the satellites into space, the fear in American government circles was that they were one step closer to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), possibly even delivering nuclear payloads, to threaten the United States. As reported in the New York Times on October 5:

“The satellites could not be used to drop atomic or hydrogen bombs or anything else on the earth, scientists have said. Nor could they be used in connection with the proposed plan for aerial inspection of military forces around the world.

“Their real significance would be in providing scientists with important new information concerning the nature of the sun, cosmic radiation, solar radio interference and static-producing phenomena radiating from the north and south magnetic poles. All this information would be of inestimable value for those who are working on the problem of sending missiles and eventually men into the vast reaches of the solar system.” (Jorden, 1957, p. 1)

Many Americans feared, however, that Sputnik was a spy satellite tracking their every move. From a public policy standpoint, there was never a better time to rethink and reinvigorate science and math education across the country.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded quickly. Three days after the launch of Sputnik II, he appointed James R. Killian as the nation's first science advisor. Two weeks later, on November 21, 2007, Eisenhower formed the President's Science Advisory Committee and named Killian chairman. On January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 became the first artificial satellite the U.S. launched into orbit. On February 6, the Senate formed a committee, headed by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, to investigate ways the U.S. could send a human into space. The House formed a similar committee the following month. On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed a bipartisan bill creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

On September 2, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act to boost federal spending on math and science education — what later became known as STEM fields — by more than a billion dollars. From 1958 to 1968, funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) rose from $34 million to $500 million, and the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) swelled from $210 million to $1.08 billion (Association of American Universities, 2007). Almost a year to the day after Sputnik I was launched, on October 1, 1958, NASA began work to put a man into space. The launch of Sputnik had set off a chain of events that culminated in the United States putting a man on the moon for the first time in human history in 1969.

STEM Education in Retrograde

In the late 1960s, federal education priorities again began to change. The focus of education funding became less about supporting math and science education and more on expanding access to higher education for historically disadvantaged groups such as minorities and women. Although the first moon landing made international headlines, with no further moon landings after 1972, interest ebbed. NASA's priorities shifted away from additional moon landings and, eventually, toward the design and construction of the International Space Station.

The trend began to reverse itself somewhat in the 1980s: "The number of PhDs awarded by American institutions in each major area of science and engineering has been increasing, beginning in the 1980s" (Butz et al., 2003, p. 2).

In the 1990s, the economic dominance of the United States began to be challenged on several fronts — first by a resurgent European Union bound together by lower trade barriers and a common currency, and second by the developing economies of the Far East and India. As part of their plans to grow their own economies in the face of stiff global competition, many of these countries began to invest vast resources in math and science education. Meanwhile, in the United States, fewer and fewer American college students pursued math and science degrees. This meant that while the overall number of advanced scientific degrees awarded by American colleges and universities continued to show healthy growth, more and more of those degrees were awarded to international students (Butz et. al, 2003, p. 3).

Boosting STEM Education

This growing disparity has led some observers to express concern about the continued health of the American economy. In the twenty-first century, as the dearth in the relative number of science and math degrees continues, business groups and science organizations are joining forces to call for a renewed push for STEM education. In the post–September 11 era, their message is not just about economic security, but national security:

“Business and science groups are reviving images of the Cold War space race in an effort to persuade lawmakers to spend millions to recruit and train high-caliber math teachers. . . . They argue that, just as a stronger focus on math helped the United States top the Soviet Sputnik launch by putting a man on the moon, the country needs to improve math education to win an economic race with China and India and a national security race against terrorism. . . . Groups are worried they will be unable to get policymakers' attention without something like Sputnik, which became both a national embarrassment and rallying point to accelerate U.S. math and science efforts.” (Theimer, 2006, par. 1–3)

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), whose aim is improving educational outcomes for K–12 public school students, focuses on improving national test scores in reading, writing, and mathematics, but there is no testing for science aptitude. Some critics argue that if there is less government funding for a subject for which there is no testing, there is now little incentive to improve. Houston (2007) has charged that with NCLB, "we have actually reduced the time we spend on instruction so that we can increase the time we spend on measuring the results of instruction. To offset this, many schools have chosen to neglect subjects not covered by the tests, so...

(The entire section is 4137 words.)