Advocacy & Public Policy Newsletter ~ December 2011
White House Releases STEM Education Inventory
Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a detailed report on the $3.4 billion that the Federal Government spends on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education each year. While inventories of STEM Ed programs have been conducted in the past, this is the first attempt by the newly-created Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) within the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which is chaired by President Obama.
STEM education programs were found to be supported across 13 different agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since most agencies have unique definitions of what constitutes a program or project, one of the main goals of this CoSTEM inventory was to create a common definition of STEM education programs. For this, they use the term “investment” to characterize individual efforts, and found 252 distinct investments that fit the report’s criteria. Other goals of the inventory were to identify areas of potential cooperation across agencies, as well as duplication, overlap and fragmentation across programs. The inventory found no duplication of programs, but some “modest overlap” and areas where synergy and effectiveness could be improved.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) was found to contribute 34% of the overall STEM education funding, the highest among all the Federal agencies, and is trailed by the Department of Education which contributes 29% of STEM Ed investments. These are mostly categorized as “broader STEM investments” as opposed to “agency mission-specific workforce investments,” of which 56% are contributed by Health and Human Services (HHS). With regards to STEM education programs targeting underrepresented groups, the Department of Education takes the lead with 46% of total investments in this area, with NSF at 22% and Health and Human Services (HHS) at 16%.
In February 2012, CoSTEM must submit a description of the NSTC’s 5-year strategic plan for streamlining STEM education across the Federal Agencies, which they will write utilizing this detailed analysis of STEM Ed investments. The hope is that this strategic plan will “support sharing of effective STEM education program strategies and evaluation techniques across the Federal agencies” and increase awareness of the programs that are currently in place.
NSF Merit Review Criteria -- UPDATE
The National Science Board (NSB) met at the National Science Foundation (NSF) last week and engaged in the latest discussion on recommendations for changes to the NSF merit review criteria. In spring 2010, the Task Force on Merit Review was established, charged with assessing how the merit review criteria aligned with the goals and mission of NSF. There are two main components of the NSF merit review criteria: broader impacts and intellectual merit. The NSB’s decision to review the criteria was stimulated by reported confusion within the scientific community about the broader impacts criterion, and inconsistent evaluations of intellectual merit.
During the initial survey, over 2,220 comments were received from senior leaders and officials at NSF, as well as PIs and reviewers and the general public. The Task Force’s initial report found that more needs to be done by institutions and evaluators to support the broader impacts activities of individual PIs. The Task Force also reported that reviewers tend to weigh the intellectual merit criterion more heavily than broader impacts, despite the NSF’s expectation that each will be evaluated equally.
After developing a new draft of the merit criteria, there was an outpouring of concerns from the general public about the weakening of broader impacts. This is the criterion AWIS is most concerned with, as this requirement may be fulfilled through activities such as broadening participation of women and other underrepresented groups. The old version of broader impacts, which was mandated by Federal legislation, included a description of broadening participation and encouraged PIs to consider this option for fulfilling broader impacts. The new draft did not even mention broadening participation, and AWIS submitted comments along with 280 other individuals and organizations who voiced their opinions to NSF on the issue in July.
The Task Force on Merit Review has now drafted a final report on these most recent comments received from the public, and NSB has approved it for action. Instead of listing the ways broader impacts can be fulfilled, the report suggests language that is inexplicit; along the lines of having some societal benefit or advancing “desired outcomes” for NSF and its mission. NSB has charged NSF with developing an implementation plan to guide PIs through the application of merit review criteria, and will include examples of ways they may be fulfilled.
Some have argued that taking broader impacts out entirely is the thing to do; but because it was legislatively mandated the NSF is not at liberty to dispose of it entirely. Many report confusion about broader impacts and feel no responsibility to expand the reach of their research beyond the “pure science”, thus certain members of the NSB believe that they are best left as non-prescriptive as possible. On the other hand, the reported confusion among scientists about broader impacts may be indicative of a bigger problem that researchers do not inherently reflect on the impact their research may have on society, and many do not relate broadening participation of underrepresented groups to their empirical research.
Presidential Champions of Change: Women and Girls in STEM
AWIS President Joan Herbers, Executive Director Janet Bandows Koster and AWIS National staff Cindy Simpson and Alice Popejoy joined the women in STEM community in the old Executive Office Building to celebrate our shared accomplishments as well as discuss the challenges that still face us ahead. One young teacher spoke of her experiences in the classroom with young boys and girls from underprivileged communities who are now (because of her class) excited about science and math. She recalled that her students were confused as to why she would attend a conference on women and girls in science and engineering…since the subjects are clearly for everybody!
AWIS supports events and recognition like the Champions of Change to raise awareness about the need for comprehensive STEM Education in the United States and programs that promote gender parity in science and engineering. To learn more about AWIS’ outreach initiatives and our own champions for women in STEM working through our local chapters, visit our website and the members-only Calendar. Not an AWIS member? Join Today!
M3 The Maddening Monthly Mention
* Pink Plastic Problems *
With the Holidays upon us and an anti-consumerism movement threatening to change Black Friday to Buy Nothing Day, companies are looking for new ways to market toys to children, and are exploring untapped markets for potential profits. Lego, for example, just announced a $40 million marketing campaign targeting girls with a new line of Legos featuring female figures. “We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children,” Lego CEO Jorgen Knudstorp told Bloomberg Businessweek this month. On the surface this seems like a positive move toward equal opportunity in the playroom. After all, playing with blocks has been shown to improve spatial reasoning skills at an early age, and girls have traditionally been underexposed to these activities which may have an effect on their association with mathematics later in life. But this new line of pink and purple Legos targets girls by reinforcing harmful stereotypes about the types of jobs and activities they should look forward to in the future. While Lego sells building kits marketed to boys for police helicopters and rockets, the girls’ blocks include a hair salon, a veterinary clinic, and a horse academy. Girls already see these occupations as viable options for them through the media and television ads, and this seems like a sorely missed opportunity for Lego to have encouraged girls to consider building rockets and spaceships.
If you think pink Legos are the worst, you haven’t heard of WILD! Science’s Girls’ Science Kits. These problematic pink products represent most poignantly the array of problems we face in the women in scientific community. First of all, the kits are pink and purple…which sets the gender stereotyping in motion automatically (pity the girl whose favorite color is blue) and they are all themed with girly activities, touting titles such as: Aroma Art, Bath Bomb Factory, Beautiful Blob Smile and Perfumed Designer. This staunch reinforcement of societal expectations for young girls is maddening in and of itself, but the Girls’ Science Kits illuminate yet another problem for women in science: the bias that women are not as serious scientists! In addition to kits like the Luxury Soap Lab, WILD! Science has come up with some Girls’ Science Kits that are not even related to science, like the Magical Crystal Oasis. Not only is this offensive to the scientific community and demonstrative of larger science-society communication issues, it is harmful to the girls who will play with this toy and forever subconsciously associate magic with science.
Telling girls who are interested in science that these are the types of occupations and activities they should look forward to is bad enough for these children. We could instead be encouraging them to consider computer science or engineering. It is also a missed opportunity for the US in that we are not nurturing or capitalizing on half of the population’s talent to enter these high-demand fields. Lego has figured out that they can fill the customer gap by reaching out to girls. The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) community should take the hint and do the same.
What an outrage!