New federal law strengthens access to STEM

By Maria Spencer

Several weeks ago Congress unanimously passed a bill sponsored by Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) called STEM Education Act of 2015.

This bill represents a small but significant access issue in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) education. The STEM Education Act of 2015 specifically directs the National Science Foundation (NSF) to award merit-reviewed grants to support education that takes place outside of the classroom in places like science centers and after-school programs. It also amends the Noyce Master Teaching Fellowship program to allow teachers in to pursue Master’s degrees to participate in the program and compete for the grants which will also now include scholarships in computer science. Computer science was not previously included as a major for access to these STEM grants.

Now that Congress has expanded the definition of STEM subjects to include computer science there will be more opportunities and resources for all students including minorities to access some federal resources to support the goal of increasing diversity in STEM education.

stemWhy is addressing diversity in STEM important? Many believe that minorities in particular may benefit from expanded strategies to access resources both in and out of schools to increase STEM education. Some private sector examples include Google sponsorship of software engineers to teach at major Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUS) such as Howard University, Fisk University in Nashville, and Spelman and Morehouse colleges in Atlanta. Facebook offers “Facebook University,” an internship for low-income minority college freshmen and both Apple and Intel have committed millions of dollars to strengthen diversity in their workforce and partnerships with nonprofits to support women and minorities in computer science.

But the STEM Coalition, which consist of over 500 education, business and professional organizations across the country said it best in its testimony supporting the STEM Education Act saying “…Simply put, if we are to keep up with our global competitors, we had better step up or commitment to improving STEM education and increasing opportunities to access innovative STEM education program both in and out of school.”

Although the bill did not include additional federal funds for STEM education, it allows for greater access to much needed resources necessary to bring the US workforce in line with the current and future demands for high tech and skilled labor. In passing this bill Congress made way for many of graduates to have greater access to grants to continue their education and purse Masers degrees or start programs in their communities to help other students who want to pursue STEM – think programs like Black Girls Code or summer coding camps.

If we consider that gaps in mathematics and science achievement persist for minority and low-income students (NSF, Science & Engineering Indicators, 2012), the STEM Education Act is a good step forward in improving the pipeline of all students (and hopefully minorities) in STEM. Congress should be commended for passing this legislation which not only makes for good public policy but signifies a way in which the public and private sectors can come together to improve and empower citizens to reach their full potential for future generations and give more young Americans the opportunity to be the next innovators, creators and visionaries.

Maria Spencer is ConnectSafely’s Washington, DC-based policy director.