Reflecting on STEM education

When I came to Congress in 1993, the phrase “STEM education” did not exist. That might be hard to believe, given the widespread adoption of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) acronym by today’s business and education leaders. As the end of my congressional service draws near, I have found myself reflecting on the progress that has been made in equipping our students with STEM education content knowledge and skills.

Before I came to Congress, I received a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and served as a professor of physics both at the University of California at Berkeley and at Calvin College. I worked closely with the education faculty at Calvin to establish a joint initiative to help prospective elementary school teachers build the confidence and gain the content knowledge they needed to teach science to their students. These experiences stuck with me and underpinned much of my thinking about the importance of teachers and the role of federal education laws in teacher training and professional development.

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When I arrived in Congress, I was assigned to the Science Committee. Later, I was asked by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to coordinate science and education policy. In this capacity, I served on both the Science Committee and the Education and Workforce Committee, and I still do.

In 1998, I oversaw the writing of the nation’s first major statement on science policy since 1945. The resulting Science Committee publication, Unlocking Our Future: Toward a National Science Policy, found that extensive changes are needed to improve math and science education in the United States, and it is still relevant today.

In 2000, I included provisions within the National Science Foundation Act reauthorization legislation to develop master teachers with strong backgrounds in math and science. Also, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, I fought for the inclusion of the Mathematics and Science Partnerships program. 

Along with Congressman Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a fellow physicist, I have led the fight to secure increased appropriations for the Mathematics and Science Partnerships program at the U.S. Department of Education. This valuable program provides funding to all states for teacher professional development in math and science. In fact, many members of Congress, education advocates, business leaders and my constituents have seen my collection of PowerPoint slides displaying the dismal performance of U.S. high-school students on math and science tests, as compared to their international peers, and the severe need for bolstered teacher professional development funding and better science and math curricula.

I should note that, over the years, the business and education community collectively referred to science, mathematics, engineering and technology education as “SMET,” and I introduced legislation referencing SMET. More recently, the community decided a more pleasant acronym was needed and referred to science, technology, engineering and mathematics as STEM instead.

In 2005, I founded the bipartisan STEM Education Caucus, which now includes more than 130 members of the House of Representatives. Later, the Senate established a similar caucus.  Incidentally, this use of the new STEM acronym caused some confusion among members of Congress, and I recall that one staffer contacted my office to ascertain whether the STEM Education Caucus had a position on the completely unrelated topic of stem cell research.

In 2007, recognizing it is never too early to begin learning the necessary basic concepts of math and science, I worked to include provisions establishing academic standards for pre-mathematics and pre-science in the Head Start program so that preschoolers are equipped with the basics before entering elementary school.

More recently, the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have enthusiastically continued to highlight the need for improvements in STEM education. I applaud their efforts to elevate the importance of STEM education and to provide tools to schools and teachers so they can effectively equip our students with the skills needed for the jobs of the future.

There is still so much more to be done. In my retirement, I plan to stay involved and engaged in education policy and politics. However, I would be delighted to pass my PowerPoint slides — and my pocket protector — along to another member of Congress, with the strong expectation that they will join Congressman Holt and others in leading the fight to ensure American students have the best education in the world.

Rep. Ehlers is a member of the Education and Labor Committee.