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House examines private sector STEM efforts

Students compete in a FIRST robotic competition. (Photo: Adriana M. Groisman/

How can the private sector help encourage the next generation to pursue STEM fields? The House Subcommittee on Research and Technology examined this question in a hearing on January 9th, and took testimony from organizations that have succeeded in attracting young people to STEM fields.

Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN) set the stage on the interplay between public and private STEM efforts, saying, "we must ensure that government is leveraging, rather than duplicating, private sector STEM education initiatives" with the $3 billion in federal STEM education expenditures each year.

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) said that while less than half of these funds go to the K-12 level, the government still plays a unique and necessary role. "The National Science Foundation is the single most important source of research, development, and testing of innovative new models for STEM education," he said.

The Subcommittee heard from industry and academia on ways they've been successful in promoting STEM. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, described robotics as an exciting way for kids to get hands-on experience in engineering. The FIRST organization, which he founded in 1989, provides a platform for teams of students to build robots and compete against others in robotic athletic competitions. The 2013—14 season includes 350,000 students. Kamen said that FIRST has 3,500 corporate sponsors and doesn't need or want federal financial support, but that the government can help the program grow by opening the doors at educational institutions.

"There are a few tens of millions of kids in this country who don't have access to FIRST," he said. "I'm here to ask you to figure out how to get FIRST available in all these schools."

The Subcommittee heard from a panel of four high school students who have been FIRST participants, all of whom credit FIRST with informing their plans for college. Vishnu Rachakonda, a 12th-grader, described how building robots gave him an appreciation for the power of math and science skills that doesn't come through in homework. "The challenges before me have pushed me to engage these fields differently and more thoroughly than anything I've done in class," he said.

There is a significant mismatch between the existing emphasis of STEM education and the areas where the United States will have jobs, according to Hadi Partovi, Co-founder of According to his numbers, 90% of schools do not teach a computer science (CS) curriculum, and there will be a million more CS jobs than students pursuing this field by 2020. At a federal level, CS is not considered a core academic field for elementary and secondary schools, and only nine states count CS toward core graduation requirements. helped run the recent Hour of Code campaign, which motivated over 22 million people to try their hand at computer programming.

"When I went to school, every student and every school would teach how to dissect a frog or how electricity works," Partovi said. "And I believe in this 21st century it's equally important to learn how to dissect an app, or how the Internet works."

This hearing is one in a series that will inform the House Science Committee's efforts to develop STEM education legislation. As a first step, Buchson and Lipinski are among the 34 co-sponsors of H.R. 2536the Computer Science Education Act—which would expand the definition of core academic subjects for elementary and secondary schools to include CS, opening the door to improved teacher training in the field.

Additional information on the hearing is available on the Subcommittee website.

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Students compete in a FIRST robotic competition. (Photo: Adriana M. Groisman/
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