A new federal science, technology, engineering, and math education plan highlights the value of apprenticeships, such as the one enrolling these two apprentices at a highly automated Stihl chainsaw manufacturing plant in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

John Minchillo/AP Photo

Trump emphasizes workforce training in new vision for STEM education

The U.S. government needs to partner with industry and community organizations to train more Americans for jobs in an increasingly high-tech work environment. That’s the key message in a new 5-year strategic plan for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education released today by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

The plan, which looks across the federal government’s entire $3 billion investment in STEM education by more than a dozen agencies, emphasizes the importance of computational literacy and the value of blending the arts, social science, and other fields in “authentic” STEM learning experiences. The 45-page report also commits federal agencies to be more transparent in tallying participation in STEM programs by minorities and women, which it acknowledges “face barriers to success.”

At the same time, the report largely dismisses several key priorities of former President Barack Obama’s administration, including the need to train more STEM elementary and secondary school teachers, strengthen the STEM curriculum, and improve undergraduate and graduate instruction to prevent would-be scientists and engineers from leaving the field. There’s also no mention of whether Trump will once again seek cuts to several STEM education programs when he releases his 2020 budget request in February 2019—a suggestion that Congress has so far twice ignored.

“We want to reconnect the education systems with the employers that await them,” says Jeffrey Weld, the administration’s point person for STEM education within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). “A chasm has emerged, and you can speculate on when it emerged,” says Weld, a former science teacher and STEM education administrator in Iowa who has spent 18 months shepherding this congressionally mandated report through an interagency committee. “Education products, that is, graduates, by many indicators, don’t appear to align with the expectations of the employers.”

Cashing in on STEM

The Trump administration has taken an approach to STEM education that differs markedly from how the topic was addressed under Obama and previous Republican and Democratic administrations. For Trump, STEM education appears almost entirely to be a means to an end—a way for students to find and hold a good job once they leave school—rather than a description of what goes on inside the classroom, or the lab bench, and in their daily lives.

The new strategic plan pays scant attention to how to improve what happens in those traditional educational settings. Instead, it extols the value of apprenticeships, retraining programs, and other opportunities that give people the technical skills they will need to keep up with a changing workplace.

“To me, the biggest benefits [of the plan are] its links to the larger administration focus on apprenticeships and the American worker,” says Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president for technology policy and de facto head of OSTP pending the Senate confirmation of Kelvin Droegemeier, Trump’s nominee to head the office. “STEM education is absolutely critical to supporting the American worker, and this plan brings together a number of programs that are part of our emphasis on the American worker.”

France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, played a leading role in formulating the plan as co-chair of the interagency committee on STEM education. Joining in a press call this afternoon with reporters, Córdova mentioned several NSF initiatives already underway as examples of what the federal government hopes to achieve over the next 5 years. NSF’s INCLUDES program to broaden participation will be adopted by several other agencies, she noted, and NSF’s Innovation Corps initiative to train scientists to become more entrepreneurial has already been taken up by other agencies.

“This plan is about connecting diversity and inclusion with the opportunity for our country to be even stronger in innovation,” she explains. The goal, she adds, is “to capture all the talent that is already resident in our country and make sure that every American has the opportunity to be exposed to STEM.”

The strategic plan will be formally unveiled Tuesday morning at a White House event, kicking off what Weld and Córdova said was a yearlong process of prodding federal agencies to spell out how they plan to implement its objectives. A senior administration official said any budget implications of the plan will be unveiled in the president’s 2020 budget request.

In the meantime, Weld said he hoped state and local officials will take to heart the importance of documenting their efforts to improve STEM education. “We don’t have any authority over the states, obviously,” says Weld, a reference to the federal government’s limited role in education under the U.S. Constitution. “This is a North Star, a rallying call, and that’s all it is. But we hope to set an example, so when states, or local partnerships or industries, or local Cub Scout troops or robotics teams, are engaged in STEM, that they, too, are measuring and reporting what they are doing.”