The National Science and Technology Council recently released the federal government’s five-year strategic plan for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The report, Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education, represents a plan for STEM education programs, investments, and activities that are implemented by federal agencies. The 2018 plan is a five-year update of the initial 2013 plan released under the Obama administration. In addition to guiding federal activities and investments, the strategic plan notes its intention to serve as a “North Star” for the broader STEM community. The finalized plan includes several objectives that are relevant to this population:
Make Mathematics a Magnet: The plan notes that mathematics continues to serve as a gateway to higher-income jobs for STEM majors. Our comments were very supportive of mathematics’ contextual integration across disciplines to improve mathematical literacy among students. This goal was ultimately incorporated, and the plan specifically emphasizes the importance of education in data science and modeling. Federal actions that the plan seeks to prioritize include support for programs and partnerships that integrate mathematics and statistics education in applied contexts, and education practices that demonstrate retention of diverse learners.
Make Computational Thinking an Integral Element of All Education: Consistent with our comments, the plan defines computational thinking (CT) broadly. The language specifically frames CT as “a set of broadly valuable thinking skills that helps people solve problems, design systems, and understand human behavior” and notes the strong linkage between CT and computer science. Policymakers and individuals in higher education are urged to integrate and standardize CT into learning materials and teacher preparation programs, while employers are encouraged to engage educational institutions to support CT instruction.
Encourage Transdisciplinary Learning: The strategic plan calls for further support of research, development, and dissemination of effective transdisciplinary STEM education practices, programs, and policies, as well as the expansion of support for STEM learners studying transdisciplinary problems through internships, fellowships, scholarships, and other training opportunities. It also promotes federal activities in support of the recruitment, preparation, retention, and upskilling of STEM educators in transdisciplinary approaches that integrate local and global community questions.
The strategic plan states the federal government’s key role in working with stakeholders to further STEM education and supports three overarching goals: Build Strong Foundations for STEM Literacy; Increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEM; and Prepare the STEM Workforce for the Future.
The plan identifies the following four pathways for achieving these goals:
- Develop and Enrich Strategic Partnerships. This pathway is focused on strengthening and creating relationships between educational institutions, employers, and communities. For institutions of higher education, this involves contributing to STEM ecosystems that engage students in work-based learning, including internships, apprenticeships, and research experiences. The plan notes that “Having strategic partnerships also means exploring opportunities within the education community to blend formal and informal learning, and to blend curricula to enable students to complete both core academic and applied technical curricula in preparation for higher education.”
- Engage Students where Disciplines Converge. In this pathway, students are encouraged to engage with “real-world problems…using knowledge and methods from across disciplines.” This path also issues a call to address the barrier that mathematics often creates in STEM career accessibility.
- Build Computational Literacy. This pathway acknowledges the importance of digital literacy while calling for the advancement of CT, which “means solving complex problems with data.” It also calls for expanded use of digital platforms for teaching and learning.
- Operate with Transparency and Accountability. This pathway urges the federal government and stakeholders to utilize “open, evidence-based practices and decision-making” in monitoring progress towards the strategic plan’s goals.
Each pathway has associated objectives for federal agencies and departments with STEM programs. These objectives are as follows:
- Foster STEM ecosystems that unite communities, increase work-based learning and training through educator-employer partnerships, and blend successful practices from across the learning landscape.
- Advance innovation and entrepreneurship education, make mathematics a magnet, and encourage transdisciplinary learning.
- Promote digital literacy and cyber safety, make computational thinking an integral element of all education, and expand digital platforms for teaching and learning.
- Leverage and scale evidence-based practices across STEM communities, report participation rates of underrepresented groups, use common metrics to measure progress, make program performance and outcomes publicly available, and develop a federal implementation plan and track progress.
SIAM leadership, particularly the SIAM Committee on Science Policy, will be planning its strategy to engage with agencies in 2019 in the context of this new plan.
The plan’s vision is that “All Americans will have lifelong access to high-quality STEM education and the United States will be the global leader in STEM literacy, innovation, and employment.” This vision—and the details set forth in the plan—are in line with themes that many policymakers have been sounding, including a global competition for scientific and technical talent as well as the relationship between STEM, economic prosperity, and national security. The plan recognizes education and research organizations as stakeholders that will engage federal agencies in supporting STEM education. It notes that “The United States has a higher education system that is the envy of the world, providing undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM and conducting research that is an engine for American prosperity and security.” Specifically-mentioned areas where further STEM education is needed to support the training of future researchers include national security, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, quantum information science, and advanced manufacturing.
Federal agencies involved in STEM education will collaborate to develop a consolidated implementation method that includes additional necessary actions to meet the strategic plan’s goals and objectives. Some agencies have already announced commitments related to the strategic plan’s release. The National Science Foundation (NSF) stated that it will be working with other federal agencies in support of the NSF Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) National Network, a program focused on diversifying the STEM workforce. Progress tracking is a major component of the strategic plan and will entail ongoing review of evidence from current programs, an annual inventory of STEM programs, and publication of participation rates by women, underrepresented minorities, and persons in rural areas in programs and activities. To support the use of evidence-based STEM processes, agencies are encouraged to identify and share effective STEM education programs, practices, and policies, including those at the postsecondary level and in lifelong learning. The plan urges institutions of higher education to use “the objectives as fruitful lines of scholarship, useful guidelines for course design, and touchpoints for teacher preparation programs.”
The strategic plan notes that “There can be no doubt that STEM education continues to be a significant priority for the United States.” It remains to be seen whether this sentiment will translate into increased funding and support for federal programs. Research organizations and institutions of higher education should use the plan’s goals, pathways, and objectives to identify areas of strengths and expertise, and leverage those in recognizing and shaping future federal STEM opportunities. One should incorporate the language and themes employed in this plan when interfacing and engaging with policymakers. Efforts around rural communities, extension projects, increased participation by women and underrepresented minorities, digital platforms, and work-based learning will remain priorities for agencies engaged in STEM education. Lewis-Burke Associates, SIAM’s Washington, D.C., liaison, will continue to monitor opportunities to shape the strategic plan’s implementation.
— Lewis-Burke Associates LLC
 Committee on STEM Education of the National Science and Technology Council. (2018, December). Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education. Washington, D.C.: National Science and Technology Council. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/STEM-Education-Strategic-Plan-2018.pdf.
 Lewis-Burke Associates, LLC. (2018). Agency Support for the 2018 Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan. Washington, D.C.: Office of Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved from http://www.lewis-burke.com/sites/default/files/federal_agency_statements.pdf.
 Office of Science and Technology Policy. (2018, December 4). President Donald J. Trump is Working to Ensure All Americans Have Access to STEM Education. Washington, D.C.: Office of Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-is-working-to-ensure-all-americans-have-access-to-stem-education/.