Boosting STEM Education with Policy and Rhetoric


Nathan Chan

Americans are familiar with President Obama’s efforts to bolster and reform the US’s educational system in K-12 and higher education. The results have been an array of policies, initiatives, and campaigns. Leading the President’s reform in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education is the “Educate to Innovate” Campaign, which hopes to improve STEM literacy in all students, improve the quality of math and science teaching, and expand STEM opportunities for underrepresented groups. One of the Campaign’s goals is to graduate one million more students than current rates predict over the next decade to address the scarcity of US STEM graduates. It’s too early to measure the ultimate success of the President’s reforms, but a shift in how the President communicates the need for increased STEM education will enhance the President’s policies.

The US’s STEM programs in K-12 education are decidedly mediocre ranking 25th and 23rd in math and science education, respectively, according to the OECD’s PISA rankings. On the level of higher education, women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM majors. Over the past decade, there has been a decline in proportion of students choosing STEM majors. Additionally, fewer than 40% of students entering higher education as STEM Majors graduate with a STEM degree. If this retention rate were merely increased from 40% to 50%, the Educate to Innovate initiative would graduate 75% of its goal of one million students

In the most recent 2012 Report, the President’s Councilor of Advisors in Science (PSCAT) identifies motivation as one of three causes for the high student attrition rate in STEM majors. The other two causes are intellectual achievement and engagement and student identification with a STEM major. The report addresses the problem of motivation as if it is best ameliorated through the modification of pedagogy, more pathways to STEM degrees, and more academic support. All theses methods are certainly valuable, but all these solutions treat motivation as if it were an isolated phenomenon when a student is at school. A student’s motivation to study any major, especially a STEM major, is affected by some decision-making process before walking on the college campus. So, motivation must be treated with a solution that transcends the university environment and fosters purpose with students internally.

The rhetoric of the President regarding STEM education thus far has been economic in tone and oppositional in nature to the US’s competitors. In both the 2011 and 2012 State of the Union Addresses, the President frames the need to bolster science and math education as a result of China and India’s actions. Communicating in this way, the President establishes a pressing need for students to study STEM fields, but does not go as far to motivate students to study STEM fields.

For students during the Space Race, the motivation to become a STEM professional was to serve the country and solve large problems. There was purpose and urgency in the need to study STEM fields was to ensure the US would still exist and thrive. In response to the Soviet Union’s actions, Eisenhower passed the National Defense Education Act and Kennedy initiated the race to the Moon. These educational and cultural changes created a scientific revival in the United States that made science education more practical and allocated more funding to scientific research increased.

Given the World’s current political environment it is impossible for the President to replicate the motivation and initiatives of the Space Race. However, he can shift his rhetoric in a direction that is more motivational, goal-oriented, and urgent. The president can achieve this by emphasizing the need to solve today’s seemingly intractable engineering problems that affect our nation today such as advancing personalized learning, making solar energy more economical, restoring and improving infrastructure, and securing cyber security. Ultimately, this will foster more motivation in students by giving them a greater purpose to their studies and ensure the success of his STEM reforms.

[Image Credit:]