Volume 4, Number 1 – March 2007

Opportunities for Innovation Policy in 2007
Volume 2: Beyond STEM Education

Reader’s Note:  In our last edition, we began examining areas where interesting changes in innovation policy might occur in 2007.  Volume 1 of this series looked at the 2007 Farm Bill; this note examines the growing interesting in STEM education reforms.   If you think STEM refers to plant biology, please read on!

If there’s one place where Washington excels, it’s in the creation of new acronyms.  The latest for innovation policy mavens is STEM, which refers to science, technology, engineering and math education.   For a host of reasons, business and academic leaders have grown increasingly worried about the quality of STEM education in the US, and they’re trying to do something about it.  They’ve published literally dozens of studies on the topic, and Congress is full of proposals to “fix” STEM education. 

So, first off:  what’s the problem?  Why worry about STEM education now?  Has Sputnik blasted off again?   While there might not be an immediate crisis ala Sputnik, there is a slowly growing sense of unease about America’s economic position and its ability to foster future scientific and technological innovations.   Combine this unease with decades of complaints about the quality of K-12 education and you’ve got something of a groundswell around fixing STEM education.  When President Bush and Congressional Democrats both agree on the need for action, we know something unusual is happening.

The range of STEM-related proposals is pretty astounding.   Dozens of bills have already been introduced in Congress, and this year’s session is only two months old.   Congressional leaders have also formed a STEM Education Caucus to focus on the issue.  Meanwhile, President Bush continues to push for his American Competitiveness Initiative, which contains a major expansion of funding for STEM education efforts.  While each of these proposals contains some distinctive features, the general outlines of a consensus view appear to developing.  Among the suggested remedies are the following:

  • Increase the number of high school students who take rigorous math and science courses.
  • Improve the quality of science and math teaching via recruitment of new teachers and improved training for existing educators.
  • Increase the number of undergraduates who receive STEM-related degrees.
  • Increase graduate study in key STEM-related areas.
  • Improve Federal agency coordination and support in these areas. 

The basic concept of these well-meaning proposals is pretty simple:  we need more Americans to be exposed to and to excel in science, math, and engineering.  The best way to achieve this goal is to prime the pump.  By providing various incentives to both students and teachers, we will be able to trigger more interest in STEM fields, and thus address many lingering education and competitiveness challenges. 

This is a pretty compelling argument, but is it really enough to simply add more on the input side?  Are more spending and more incentives really going to change how young people view these fields?  The jury is still out.  In fact, it’s not really clear that the customer (i.e. students, parents, graduate students) is really clamoring for “more” math and science.  For example, a recent poll from Public Agenda asked parents whether their children took enough math and science courses in high school.  Fifty seven percent felt the current course structure was sufficient, while 32% wanted more math and science.  Students are similarly lukewarm.  When asked to identify the biggest problems facing the education system, the shortage of math and science courses ranked number 11 on the student list of concerns.  

We present this caution not to say that these proposals are a bad thing.  The US should invest more to support STEM education.  But, we should make these investments with eyes wide open.  It’s not going to be enough to simply prime the pump by spending more on teachers, fellowships, and curriculum.  More is not enough.  We’ll need to do things better and differently too.  

When employers are surveyed about desired skills in the future workforce, they regularly mention creativity, innovation, an ability to work in teams, and an ability to work with diverse people and environments.   Better science and math education will help hone these skills, but they can’t do it alone.  We will also need to introduce new education techniques and technologies that foster creative thinking and innovative behaviors.  Some of these new approaches are being pioneered in the teaching of math and science.  For example, the FIRST Robotics competition engages youth in science via a national competition to build robots. Other initiatives will come from the burgeoning field of entrepreneurship education.  And, traditional arts education must also be part of the mix. 

The solution is to consider to something like a “STEM plus” initiative.  If we simply want more scientists and mathematicians, the current STEM education proposals may be enough.  If we want more innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative workers, we should consider STEM plus.  After all, good ideas, innovations, and new technologies don’t come only from scientists and engineers. 

Miscellaneous Plugs: Entrepreneurship Week USA and its Aftermath

In case you missed it, the last week of February (February 27-March 3, to be exact) was the first annual celebration of Entrepreneurship Week USA. The event was a huge success with more than 1,300 partner organizations sponsoring thousands of events in all fifty states. Look for an even bigger and better celebration next year, but, in the meantime, lots of useful research studies and reports were released in conjunction with Entrepreneurship Week USA. Here’s a sampling:

Council on Competitiveness, Where America Stands: Entrepreneurship (http://www.compete.org/pdf/ew_deeper_dive.pdf): This report assesses America’s capacity to support new and high growth businesses. The verdict? The US continues to lead the world in spawning high-growth entrepreneurs, and this capacity is becoming a more critical component in regional development strategies.

Education Commission of the States’ February 2007 report, “Entrepreneurship Education Laws in the States,” by Kyle Zinth, (http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/73/08/7308.pdf). This report presents a pretty depressing picture of the state of entrepreneurship education in the US. To date, only 9 states have legislation specifically addressing entrepreneurship at the K-12 level, and only 14 states have laws to support entrepreneurship at the post-secondary level

Kauffman Foundation and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, The State New Economy Index (http://www.kauffman.org/pdf/2007_State_Index.pdf): This assessment ranks states on their ability to support innovation, entrepreneurship and technology development. Top performers include California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington.

What’s New at EntreWorks Consulting?

  • Erik R. Pages of EntreWorks recently testified before a House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on “The State of Economic Development.”  You can view his testimony at www.entreworks.net/library.
  • Erik R. Pages of EntreWorks was recently appointed to the Arlington County (VA) Economic Development Commission.
  • Upcoming Training Opportunities:  Erik Pages of EntreWorks will be leading several training sessions in the coming months.
    • May 1, 2007:  â€œDesigning an Index of Your Innovation Economy,” Des Moines, Iowa (To learn more, visit www.c2er.org)
    • June 6, 2007:  Small Business and Entrepreneurial Development Strategies,” Atlanta, Georgia (To learn more, visit www.iedconline.org)