Obama budget imperils science education

Restructuring puts popular STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives on the chopping block

Topics: Scientific American, Barack Obama, STEM, Science, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, , ,

Obama budget imperils science educationU.S. President Barack Obama (Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American Ayah Idris, 14, spent two weeks of her summer isolating strawberry DNA at a Seattle cancer research center, watching heart cells pulse in a dish and learning about ethical guidelines for animal research.

The Summer Fellows program “sparked a little passion in me,” says Ayah, a rising 10th-grader whose parents are from Eritrea. “I was kind of interested in science before, but I didn’t really know that much about it. Now I know that science in the real world is what I want to do.”

This type of inspiring dive into the rigors and rewards of a career in science would seem to be a perfect antidote to the national hand-wringing over the slipping state of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in the U.S. In addition to offering the kinds of inquiry-based experiences that have been shown to best promote science learning, programs such as the Summer Fellows bring kids in contact with the latest scientific advances that have yet to be published in textbooks. Now, the funds that bolster these programs are in danger.

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget lays out a sweeping restructuring intended to consolidate STEM education in the U.S. into three agencies—the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution—and to cut down on the inefficiency of overlapping initiatives. Funding overall for STEM programs is actually slated to increase by 6 percent, to $3 billion, under the proposal. But support for popular educational initiatives from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with those from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, appears to have been lost in the consolidation shuffle. It’s instructive to examine the changes to education about health, often the area of science  students identify with most.The $15.4 million Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA) administered by the NIH, for instance, are on the chopping block: they fund 60 or so   programs such as the one Idris attended, along with museum exhibits, classroom curricula, teacher professional development, mobile science lab buses and Web sites. Each year, SEPA programs reach more than 80,000 K-12 students in person and provide learning resources for millions of students and educators online; the SEPA grants account for the bulk of the money powering the nation’s informal health science education that takes place outside formal classroom programs.

Perhaps even more bewildering about the budget-trimming is the understanding among SEPA recipients that the NIH Office of Science Education, which oversees the coordination of the agency’s education efforts, is poised to shut its doors September 30, according to Louisa Stark, a genetics professor at the University of Utah. In total, the NIH is slated to lose $26 million. Sequestration cuts have made the situation more dire. “Facing extraordinary budget uncertainties, it’s a question of prioritization,” says Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director at the NIH. Still, he remains hopeful that other coordinating agencies will take advantage of the NIH’s expertise. “We continue to feel that K-12 STEM education is extremely important, and we want to do what we can to make sure any new programs launched are accurate and reflect the most recent modern science.”

Tabak wouldn’t confirm the scheduled closing of the NIH Office of Science Education, but Jeanne Ting Chowning, senior director at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research who developed the Summer Fellows program, says employees are scrambling to find a repository for the Office’s storehouse of educational materials and searching for an new online home for reams of science curricula once the official Web site eventually goes dark.

“It really is an emergency,” says Chowning, whose organization promotes an understanding of biomedical research and ethics both in and out of the classroom. More than half her budget comes from the U.S. government; the rest is from membership, sponsors and foundations. “The key is that these supplements from the Office of Science Education are developed and vetted by the highest-quality scientists we have in our country,” Chowning says. “As a teacher, you know you can trust their integrity.”

U.S. pupils of course study health and science in school. But programs funded by SEPA grants tackle cutting-edge issues, allowing students to grapple with contemporary health challenges facing scientists and academics. Students might model how infectious disease spreads or study how different states approach the public-health issues surrounding opting out of vaccinations. They might explore the connection between addiction and the brain or debate the allocation of organ transplants. They might use Skittles to learn about control groups and blinding in research studies. “We put out a unit on epigenetics,” says Stark , who recently organized the annual NIH science education conference, “that’s not even in textbooks yet.”

The informal programs also influence teaching in the classroom. In North Carolina, Chowning’s counterpart Suzanne Wilkison recommended that materials developed by the NIH Office of Science Education underpin a N.C. Department of Public Instruction statewide high school course on biomedical technologies. More than 7,000 students took the class last year. Wilkison recently helped educators piece together another course based on six NIH curriculum supplements, one of which tracks the evolution of medicine—now its future is unclear. “We contacted the Office and said, ‘North Carolina just started down the path of creating this course using your tools,’” says Wilkison, president of the N.C. Association for Biomedical Research. “‘What should we do?’”

Perhaps the greatest void would come from losing the hands-on teaching and outreach to underrepresented students like Idris that characterizes SEPA programs. To understand how alcohol is digested, for example, kids in Boston conducted their own experiments: they put a fixed amount of enzyme in a test tube and poured in increasing amounts of alcohol. “We do it with a color change so students can watch what happens,” says Carla Romney, director of research for CityLab, the SEPA-funded program at Boston University’s School of Medicine. “You add more and more alcohol, and eventually the enzyme can’t keep up. That’s how you get drunk. We don’t say, ‘Don’t drink.’ Instead we teach kids what happens to their body when they drink.”

Such vivid experiences make SEPA programs popular, leaving observers puzzled about the impending cuts. In a recent conference call between the agencies designated to helm STEM education and recipients of NIH science education grants, “none of the three agencies said that health literacy or health education was within their mission,” recalls Stark, who directs the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah. The center has relied on NIH funding to develop the most widely used online genetics education resource in the world. Learn.Genetics (for students and the general public) and Teach.Genetics (for instructors) are in the top 99.995 percentile of the Internet’s most visited sites. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Stark says.

Under the reorganization, the number of all STEM programs would shrink from 226 to 110. “These disciplined choices to reorganize and cut back lower-priority or narrow-purpose programs make room for targeted increases, allow for easier coordination, and improve opportunities for rigorous evaluation of the remaining programs,” John Holdren, director of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the Senate budget committee in May.

The Senate is not persuaded and is now pushing back. In mid-July, the Senate Appropriations Committee released a report that expressed its displeasure with the reallocation of resources, saying it “is not convinced that the quality of these programs would be maintained if they were moved to other Federal agencies.” The committee called for NIH to continue operating the Office of Science Education and the SEPA programs.

But budget-making moves slowly inside the Beltway, leaving educators worried that by the time funding might get restored, much of the infrastructure—not to mention the people who supported that infrastructure—will have disappeared.

That could leave students like Idris in the dark about what a future career in science might look like. After participating in the summer program, she has her sights newly set on becoming a bioengineer. “Before the fellowship,” says Ayah, “I didn’t even know what that is.”

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