By Jeff Weld
Anyone who doubts the ability of Iowa’s youth to restore our great state to national prominence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) should come with me to one of the many fairs and competitions for the bright and curious along the I-380 corridor.
There are robot showdowns, invention conventions, technology duels, science fairs and more, drawing talent from every corner of the region. At school, kindergartners crash tiny cars to learn Newton’s Laws way ahead of traffic laws. Seventh-graders compete as Mathletes® to win numbers quests. High schoolers program cyber-defenses against make-believe hackers. And our collegians more often than not these days do real science in their introductory courses.
So what is holding us back from reclaiming the national leadership Iowa enjoyed in STEM education in the 1980s and 1990s? And, what does it matter?
It is not so much that Iowa’s student scores, interest and other performance indicators are slipping; it’s that other states are excelling. Eighth graders of seven U.S. states surpassed Iowa on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science. In mathematics, the score averages of more than a dozen states were higher than Iowa’s.
Test scores are but one measure of where we stand, of course. But the NAEP is a highly visible and widely respected instrument. On average, we are not keeping up. The privileged STEM learning experiences available in the Corridor region does not happen broadly enough across the state.
Iowa’s economic prosperity tomorrow hinges on the quality of STEM education today. Careers in science and technology fields will grow at four times the rate of other occupations in the coming decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Preparation for work in bioscience, engineering, information technology or advanced manufacturing is a ticket to a comfortable, meaningful future.
Although we have world-class educational talents and assets for producing the best of STEM professionals, policy-level strategic planning is needed in order to leverage and support these assets. Of the 50 states, half have a science and technology policy legislative committee, 20 have a state-level science and technology strategic plan, 19 have science and technology advisory boards, and 11 have an office of science and technology or a science and technology adviser, according to the Office of Policy Analysis and Research at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Iowa has none of these.
What we do have are powerful and insightful recommendations of leading business and education organizations. The Iowa Business Council’s recent report, “A Competitiveness Blueprint: Iowa 2025,” defines the pathway for Iowa’s economic prosperity, anchored to STEM innovation.
Another comprehensive plan, “Realizing Iowa’s Bioscience Potential: 2011 Iowa Bioscience Strategy,” was recently produced by an Iowa Bioscience Strategy Steering Committee to guide policymakers in strengthening the life science dimension of Iowa’s economy.
And on Feb. 1, the “Iowa STEM Education Roadmap: A Strategic Plan” was published by a group of STEM education leaders representing business, education and state government. Seven bold targets identify how Iowa can regain national and international
leadership in STEM education.
For all of these recommendations to become actions, all Iowans must recognize the urgency of our condition and embrace change in how we go about STEM education. Together we must insist on only the best STEM education for all Iowa learners.
Iowa STEM Education Roadmap: www.iowastem.org/assets/roadmap.pdf.
Jeff Weld is director of the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership and an associate professor in biology at the University of Northern Iowa. Comments: Jeff.firstname.lastname@example.org