Where’s Sputnik when you need it?
“This is not a Sputnik we are faced with,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), referring to the reason there has been a lack of urgency about promoting science and math education in America. “Rather, it’s a series of trends that are against us.”
Bingaman and three other senators said Wednesday that they are feeling urgency as they introduced the PACE (Protecting America’s Competitive Edge) Act.
Faced with a flat world – the salary of one engineer in the United States will get you 11 in India – and alarming educational statistics – as of 1999, 41 percent of U.S. 8th graders, as opposed to 71 percent internationally, received instruction from a teacher specializing in math – the act is a three bill package that authorizes $8.95 billion in the first year, and more each year through 2013, to bring America up to speed. Separate appropriations bills would have to provide the actual funds.
Some details, most importantly procuring the billions, are not yet worked out, but experts lauded the initiative as a strong, bipartisan and much needed message. The act embraces 20 recommendations – some focused on higher education – made in the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”  report issued by the National Academies.
For higher education, the act asks for 30,000 merit-based scholarships yearly; 25,000 scholarships – up to $20,000 per year – for high school graduates studying science, engineering, or math, and 5,000 research fellowships for graduate students that would cover education costs and provide a stipend.
One of the problems “Gathering Storm” identified was the lack of well-trained science and math teachers to groom a generation of students. To that end, the bill also calls for the creation of 10,000 competitive scholarships – up to $20,000 a year – each year for undergraduate students studying math or science who agree to concurrently work on their teacher certification and to teach for at least four years after graduation.
Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities, said that, though details need to be worked out, “we are very pleased that there is political traction for the idea. Nineteen senators, 10 Republicans and 9 Democrats, have agreed to co-sponsor the bill, and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), one of those who introduced the bill, said President Bush may mention it in his State of the Union Address next week.
Paying for the bill is of course the challenge. “There are resource issues, but the fact this is being placed so strongly is important,” Hasselmo said. Added Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), one of the senators introducing the act: “If we only spend money on war … hurricanes, welfare, debt … we will lose our standard of living.” The fact that Senators Domenici and Mikulski are on the Senate Appropriations Committee could help the effort.
If the bill moves forward as is, universities should indirectly benefit from an outlined 10 percent increase per year over seven years in spending caps for basic research budgets in key federal agencies.
The bill also says that colleges should get grants in the interest of promoting “summer academies,” one-to-two week crash courses for science and math teachers that would seek to push them farther toward the cutting edge.
Kathy Norman, professor of science education at the California State University at San Marcos, and president of the Association for Science Teacher Education, said that resources are scarce when it comes to educating and recruiting top science teachers. In terms of math and science education, “we are in very serious trouble in this country, k-to-college,” Norman said. She commended the push to identify potential science teachers when they are undergraduate science students, and added that she hopes the merit scholarships will “pay attention to attracting people from diverse backgrounds."