Committee on Science and Technology
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Member Speeches :: November 20, 2006

Remarks by Rep. Dan Lipinski before the National Science Board Commission on 21st Century Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Chicago, Illinois

Good morning.  I would like to thank the National Science Board for inviting me to be here today to join this critical discussion on improving our nation’s science, technology, engineering, and math education, more commonly known as STEM Ed.

As many of you may know, before being elected to Congress I was a college professor, and before that I was an engineer.  I earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University and an M.S. in engineering-economic systems from Stanford University, before changing course and earning a Ph.D. in Political Science from Duke University.  This unusual path was noted by one of my Science Committee colleagues at a hearing on STEM Ed.  He jokingly referred to my shift away from engineering as “going to the dark side.”  But thankfully one of the witnesses at the hearing defended me; he remarked that America lags behind so many other countries - especially in Asia - in having leaders with a STEM background, and that America would be better off with more leaders such as myself.  Of course this comment made those long days in the lab and those long nights of studying seem a bit more worthwhile.  But what I do know is that as one of only 9 House members with an engineering degree, in addition to my experiences as a college professor, I have a unique perspective on STEM education and American competitiveness.  I understand some of the problems faced by teachers and students in studying and staying with STEM subjects.  I also know how essential it is for the future of our country that we lead the world in scientific research and technological development.  And since I was first elected to Congress I have worked to put this knowledge to good use.

Science and engineering have been the base of the American economic growth for generations.  We were leaders in the industrial revolution and we initiated the internet age.  Today, these fields continue to have great potential for growing our economy and employing more Americans.  Between 1983 and 2004 the percentage of the US workforce in science and engineering occupations almost doubled.  Groundbreaking discoveries and innovative technologies are continually creating new industries and opportunities.  Nanotechnology is just one of many exciting industries that are about to revolutionize the international economy.

However, if we are not careful, America will be left behind in the next technological revolution.  Providing high quality jobs for hard working Americans must be our top priority - and in order to accomplish that, we must be proactive.  The necessary first step is to improve science and math education in schools, because an educated workforce is the foundation for economic strength.

We all know that America is falling behind other countries in educating our youth in STEM fields.  American students continue to score below international averages on math and science tests.  China and Japan both award more than 50% of their undergraduates degrees in science and engineering, while only 23% of US students receive these degrees.  Here in Chicago, less than one-third of fourth-grade students have the necessary basic science knowledge.  By 8th grade, that number decreases even further.  We as a country cannot continue to be an economic leader if our students persist in falling behind in these key fields.

This problem was nationally highlighted almost a year ago, when the National Academy of Sciences released its Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, which I am sure many of you are familiar with.  It raised questions about America's future technological and, in turn, economic competitiveness.  This report, echoed by the President in his State of the Union address, emphasized the need for government to take a number of actions.  Improving STEM education is perhaps the most important.

The Rising Above the Gathering Storm report contains several recommendations for what Congress can do to help our country remain competitive.  I have been working with fellow members of the House Science Committee to push for implementation of many of these recommendations.  We worked on and introduced legislation including the Science and Mathematics Education for Competitiveness Act.  The bill focuses on improving teacher training in STEM areas for both new and current educators.  Among other things, the legislation expands the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program to encourage undergraduates to major in STEM areas and then teach in public schools after graduation.  It also provides funding for mentoring and support for these new teachers during their first years of teaching, when many often leave because of the challenges faced.

I am pleased that Mayor Daley announced his support of a similar idea last week, encouraging the creation of Federally-funded four-year scholarships awarded to students who promise to teach science and math in public schools across the country.

There are also other ways to improve K-12 education.  We need to offer more Advanced Placement courses and have teachers well-prepared to teach them.  We need to figure out how to best retrain current teachers to make them more effective.  We also need a better way to learn what curricular materials successful teachers are using and pass that information on to others.

I cannot emphasize enough how important teachers are.  A teacher first inspired my interest in engineering.   When I was a kid I was fascinated in learning how things work, as most children are.  I remember Father Fergus, who taught me physics at St Ignatius, taking this childhood fascination and tying it to engineering.  His creativity and interest sparked MY interest in engineering, and I give him the credit for inspiring me to study engineering in college.

This type of inspiration must be continued and expanded.  We must provide more incentives to colleges and industries to work with elementary and secondary students to get them excited about STEM Ed.  I was at the College of Engineering at Northern Illinois University last week and I learned about the special efforts they are making to target high school students and get them interested in engineering by showing them what they can do as engineers.  At Northwestern last month, I learned about how the faculty is actively reaching out to young students to pique their interest in STEM Ed by showing them what can be done with nanotechnology and how this research can change the world.

Many of you probably know about the MATHCOUNTS program, which has reached students across the country, using competition and coaching to promote math among middle school students.  Involving partnerships between local and national educators, businesses (such as Lockheed Martin and CNA Financial Corporation), and volunteers, MATHCOUNTS endeavors to make math fun - these students stay after school to work on math problems instead of playing video games.  Reaching students of all ages, from pre-school to undergraduate, is so important to inspire them to keep up with their studies.  I know many other universities and companies are doing similar work and they need to be encouraged to increase this activity.

We also need to improve training at the college level.  This should include more STEM-focused scholarships to encourage a diverse base of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.  And we need to encourage more STEM Ph.Ds.  My wife was a math major in college and she had the opportunity to participate in the NSF program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU).  While my wife did not go on to pursue a Ph.D. - instead opting for the applied side of math as a fully credentialed actuary - I agree with Doctor Beering that REU is a great example of what we should be doing more of.  I also strongly support focusing more federal grants on early-career researchers to encourage them to stay in STEM fields.  It was certainly helpful to me when I received a grant from the National Science Foundation when I was in grad school.

But we must find other ways to spark a wide interest in STEM education.  About 45 years ago President Kennedy issued his challenge to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, and Congress and the President made the investment not only directly in the space program, but also in STEM Ed.  We met the challenge and along the way we inspired young Americans with the excitement of reaching for the goal.  Today I believe that we can once again challenge Americans toward a new and very necessary goal - sharply increasing America’s energy independence and one day becoming completely independent, while at the same time making energy production environmentally sustainable.

As a way to address this issue, I strongly support the ARPA-E Act which will create an Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Energy.  This will speed the commercialization of energy technologies to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy by 20% in the next 10 years.  Focusing on high-risk, high-reward research that private companies will not fund by themselves, ARPA-E will help us make huge leaps in creating a cleaner, more stable energy economy.  In addition, this type of risky research can offer incredible inspiration to students - after all, a similar government program helped launch the Internet.

Another unique piece of legislation designed to encourage creativity and spark interest in alternative energy is the H-Prize Act that I introduced earlier this year with Rep. Bob Inglis.  This bill provides cash prizes for advances in hydrogen storage, production, and distribution, for new prototype hydrogen vehicles that meet certain goals, and a grand prize of $10 million prize over the next 10 years for a breakthrough or transformational technology.  We were able to get this bill passed in the House and we are currently working on getting it passed in the Senate.

While the ideas generated by this prize will certainly help wean us from our oil dependency, it will also serve to spur the imagination of students across the country.  I had a similar inspiration during my youth.  In the 1970s there was great enthusiasm about solar power as an alternative energy source.  In my eighth-grade science fair project I examined solar energy, because I was thrilled by what I was reading and hearing about the possibilities.  Unfortunately, America’s interest in alternative energy sources seemed to fall off.  We cannot afford to let that happen again.  Perhaps there is a student out there today whose imagination will be sparked by the H-Prize, and that child can help develop the much-needed answers to today’s energy problems.

These are just a few ideas about how to promote STEM Ed.  If we are to remain a leader in the world economy, we must make changes NOW.  We are already in danger of losing our competitive edge in industries ranging from aerospace to manufacturing.  This is why this meeting is so important.  What our country needs from you, the experts gathered here today, is an action plan for all levels of government.  What laws can Congress establish to increase the number of undergraduates that major in STEM areas?  What can Federal agencies do to help increase the number of talented and well-trained teachers across the country, including in high-risk schools?  Why are U.S. students scoring lower on international science and math tests and what can governments at all levels do to improve these scores?  How can local school superintendents and school administrations help teachers become better and more efficient at educating our students in these areas?

These are huge questions that will take a lot of creativity, collaboration, and hard work to solve.  You have a large challenge in front of you and I wish you the best in accomplishing it.  I am eagerly anticipating your final report to see your suggestions. Though the Bush Administration and both parties in Congress have talked about this being a priority, no legislation addressing American competitiveness has been enacted into law in the last year.  But I believe that this will change next year, and you are in a great position to shape what we do.  We have challenges ahead of us, but the American people have always succeeded in conquering their greatest challenges.

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