STEM Policy in the United States and Canada
Carla C. Johnson, Janet B. Walton and Jonathan M. Breiner
This chapter examines the nature of STEM federal and state policies that have been enacted within the United States (U.S.) and Canada across the past two decades. Arguably, the U.S. sparked what we consider now the era of STEM education in the early 1990s with the National Science Foundations (NSF) use of the acronym SMET to refer to science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, an acronym that was changed to STEM in 2001 by the same agency (e.g., Breiner, Harkness,Johnson, & Koehler, 2012; Sanders, 2009). In the nearly three decades that have passed since the NSF started using an acronym to represent the various STEM disciplines, the meaning of STEM has transformed into a way to describe curriculum, programs, schools, and training in the U.S. and beyond. The focus of this chapter will be to examine the historical context of STEM policy and research on impact of investments, and future directions for STEM education in the U.S. and Canada.
STEM Education Policy in the U.S.
In spite of the burgeoning federal interest in STEM education and workforce development, the question What is STEM? has largely defied policymakers and federal agencies—mostly due to the manner in which the acronym STEM was put into use and the meanings which have evolved over time (e.g. Breiner et al., 2012;Johnson, 2013a, 2019). STEM has been defined quite broadly by agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), which includes psychology and social sciences in addition to physical and life sciences within the scope of STEM (America COMPETES Act of
2010) and more narrowly by others, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agencies that exclude most social sciences in their definitions of STEM (Granovskiy, 2018). Some attempts have been made to standardize the definition of STEM across federal agencies, including the 2012 recommendation by the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) Policy Committee to categorize STEM occupations into two broad domains: Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Information Technology; and Science and Engineering- related occupations (Granovskiy, 2018). Furthermore, the STEM Education Act of 2015 included a specific provision to add computer science to the definition of STEM used by selected federal agencies. It is noteworthy that this lack of focus on a STEM definition is not unique to the federal government, and debates continue among analysts and educators on issues such as whether STEM should be defined vocationally or in broader conceptual terms (e.g., Breiner et al., 2012;Johnson, 2013b, 2019).
With 50 distinct state educational systems within the U.S., it is not surprising that there are substantial variations in STEM policy across the nation. Differing conceptualizations of STEM education across the nation mirror the multiple definitions of STEM among federal agencies. Carmichael (2017) investigated STEM policy across all 50 states, identified four categories of STEM definitions in states’policy materials, and found that most states (72%) included definitions of STEM that reflected its integrative nature across disciplines, while only 10% identified STEM by its constituent disciplines alone. The most commonly identified focus ot STEM in policy statements (78% of states) related STEM to workforce or economic development, and most also emphasized equity (68% included statements that STEM is for all students, and 56% identified broadening minority representation in STEM as a priority) (Carmichael, 2017). Mechanisms for instituting programs to align with these goals were less often articulated in STEM policy statements, with just under a third (30%) identifying CTE programs as vehicles for STEM education, 18% identifying afterschool programs as opportunities for STEM learning, and 16% stipulating that more advanced high school coursework was a means to improve STEM education in the state (Carmichael, 2017). This tapestry of state-by- state variations in STEM definition and focus illustrate that one of the major challenges in effecting and assessing STEM education reform efforts nationally lies in the structure ot U.S. education, in which states maintain primary control ot and authority over K-12 education.
In 2018, the Education Commission of the States (ECS) published a profile of state level STEM initiatives across the U.S. Data collected by the ECS included policy information related to teacher recruitment and professional development as well as various student-level policies. The ECS (2018) found that 38 states had policies to provide some sort of financial incentives in their STEM teacher recruitment efforts and that 23 provided targeted STEM professional development for high school teachers. There was less consensus regarding student-level policies. For example, only eight states had policies to support student STEM mentoring and internship or other work-based learning programs, and only 12 had policies to support afterschool STEM programs. ECS determined that 18 states had rigorous graduation requirements for science and mathematics (defined as three credits ot laboratory science and three mathematics credits including Algebra II). Twelve states had policies to support programs targeting groups underrepresented in STEM.
Early 21st-century claims about impending shortages of American workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, most notably the 2005 Rising Above the Gathering Storm report published by the National Academies Press, fueled federal interest in K-12 STEM education. Bolstered by the unprecedented federal foray into K-12 education represented by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002, members of Congress took a new interest in STEM education in the nation’s K-12 and postsecondary institutions, resulting in a flurry of legislative and policy efforts in the ensuing years. These efforts included the formation of a new federal-level oversight committee charged with monitoring federal STEM investments as well as various non-legislative policy initiatives emanating from the White House, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), and other federal agencies. Considerable investments of taxpayer dollars were directed toward these efforts, with federal spending on STEM over the seven-year period from 2010 to 2016 estimated at around S3 billion. Less clear, however, is what the results of these investments have been.