White House Memo on STEM Ed Followed Up by Corporate Commitments

Finally, something the current White House and its previous residents can agree on: the need to invest in STEM education. President Trump this week issued a memo to Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, encouraging her to divert $200 million from her agency's annual budget to grant programs that support "high-quality science, technology, engineering and math education."

"These skills open the door to jobs, strengthening the backbone of American ingenuity, driving solutions to complex problems across industries, and improving lives around the world," Trump stated in the memo. "As part of my administration's commitment to supporting American workers and increasing economic growth and prosperity, it is critical that we educate and train our future workforce to compete and excel in lucrative and important STEM fields."

The directive called out the many high schools that don't offer computer programming (60 percent) or physics (40 percent); alluded to the education chasm that exists for African-American and rural students, who have "even less access to computer science education"; and highlighted the gender gap for students who most recently took the Advanced Placement CS exam, of which only 22 percent were female.

The memo also pushed Education to "prioritize helping districts recruit and train teachers capable of providing students with a rigorous education in STEM fields."

The president's guidance doesn't propose new funding; the suggestion is to use existing budget to fund the grants.

Two months ago, the president donated his second quarter salary, totaling $100,000 to the department to help fund a STEM-focused camp for students. And the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, has participated in several STEM events this year, including a reading event with DeVos at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, intended to spark interest among girls aged 6 to 10 in learning about STEM topics.

The younger Trump met with business leaders this week who pledged support for the funding initiative with their own commitments. According to reporting by the New York Times, some of the country's largest technology firms have promised to kick in an additional $300 million in "money, technology and volunteers" to CS education. Five companies, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce, are contributing $50 million each; Lockheed Martin guaranteed $25 million; and Accenture, General Motors and Pluralsight, an online training company, each said they would kick in $10 million apiece.

Among those who spoke out in support of the corporate commitments was Haid Partovi, co-founder and CEO of Code.org, an organization that manages multiple initiatives to promote CS in schools, including Hour of Code. "This is the largest joint private sector effort for [CS], globally," said Partovi, in a prepared statement. "It will accelerate the teacher-led movement to ensure that every student in every school has the opportunity to learn [CS]."

Another organization, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, suggested that the White House support was insufficient to the challenge. While ITIF President, Robert Atkinson, applauded the administration for "for tasking the Department of Education for prioritizing STEM education and CS," what's really needed, he asserted, was a stronger move to bring CS, in particular, to the forefront. "Consider that the number of high school students taking AP [CS] has more than doubled in recent years — from about 20,000 in 2010 to almost 50,000 in 2015 — but that figure still pales in comparison to the number of students taking AP calculus," he wrote in a prepared statement. "That can't continue if the United States is going to continue to have a globally competitive economy over the long term. [CS] education cannot be a fringe subject or skills-based course. We should treat it as a core science on par with biology, chemistry and physics." Atkinson also urged institutions of higher education to expand their curriculum "to meet growing demand for computer skills among both students and employers."

Some detractors found the administration's latest move ironic, noting that the memo came out of the same Oval Office that proposed shuttering NASA's Education Office in 2018. As the Washington Post observed in March, that's the same office that "oversees efforts to support women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields, operates camps and enrichment programs, and provides internships and scholarships for young scientists." In 2017 the NASA Education Office budget was $100 million, down from $115 million in 2016. Should that be cut out entirely, education work will continue to be carried on, at least somewhat, by the NASA Science Mission Directorate, which was given $37 million last fiscal year for STEM projects.

The president's memo, in its entirety, is published on the White House website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.