Striving to STEM the tide of technology from Asia

US aims to outdo rivals through mathematics and science 'push'

The US government is to pour millions of dollars into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching as part of an "aggressive STEM push" to seize the economic initiative from countries in East Asia.

The US, in common with other Western powers, has become increasingly concerned that the likes of South Korea, China and Singapore have a competitive advantage when it comes to producing high-quality engineers, scientists and mathematicians.

But US president Barack Obama's bid to increase education funding stands in stark contrast to the strategy of the UK government, which announced in its annual budget this year that it would only be protecting school spending from cuts, rather than investing more.

Under the president's proposal, STEM education programmes will undergo a major overhaul that includes a $7.6 billion (#163;4.9 billion) collaboration between the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, including schools and universities. Money will be pumped into a major overhaul of federal programmes and a "Master Teacher Corps" will be created, with the aim of recruiting 100,000 "excellent" teachers over the next 10 years.

The budget proposals will be debated by Congress, with a decision due before 1 October.

The country already spends approximately $3 billion a year on STEM but, much like in the UK, take-up of these subjects has been low, particularly in mathematics and science.

According to results from the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, US children perform well in science and mathematics at the ages of 10 and 11 but their performance drops off by the time they reach 13 or 14.

Newman Burdett, head of international comparisons at the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, said the study's figures hid "statistically significant underperformance" among US students, who scored particularly poorly when it came to applying their knowledge.

"The US has never really done that badly when it comes to STEM, but (students) do struggle with the higher order skills, which is what you really need when you are talking about jobs and being innovative and keeping your competitive edge in the global market," Dr Burdett said.

The decision by the US to increase spending came as changes were taking place to school curricula in countries such as South Korea, China, Singapore and Hong Kong, he added.

"The US has never really seen China as a threat when it comes to the more creative side of things, but you can see with what is happening over there, and in (South) Korea and Hong Kong, they are changing their education systems and becoming much more innovative," Dr Burdett said.

Some of the world's biggest technology companies, such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, are based in the US. But employers have concerns about the quality and quantity of graduates in STEM subjects in comparison with the Far East.

Just last month, Google expressed fears about the low take-up of STEM subjects in UK schools. "We need to employ computer engineers and seek to employ the brightest and the best, so we are concerned and worried as to where those great engineers are going to come from," Peter Barron, Google's director of external relations, told TES.

James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, based in Washington DC, welcomed the move by the president but said that it was difficult to communicate the importance of science and mathematics to students.

While polls showed that about 90 per cent of parents thought that STEM should be a priority for schools, only about half believed that it was actually treated as a priority, he added.

"Compounding this, less than half of US high-school graduates (aged 18) were ready for college work in (mathematics) and less than a third were ready in science," Mr Brown said. "We simply have to turn this situation around if we want to sustain American economic prosperity for the future."


4% - Proposed rise in federal education spending from 2013 to 2014

$71bn - Proposed federal education funding for 2014

$411bn - Current total US federal, state and local government education funding for schools.

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