STEM education focus of congressional hearing at Madison’s Bob Jones High

Huntsville may be ahead of the curve when it comes to science education, but plenty of work remains to ensure that the education system adequately fills an increasingly technology-based workforce.

That was the gist of a congressional hearing held Monday morning at Bob Jones High School to discuss the future of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the Rocket City and beyond.

The hearing was hosted by U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, who chairs the subcommittee on Research and Science Education for the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Brooks was joined by Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. Lipinski told those present that fewer than 40 percent of college students who start out in a STEM-related field follow through and get a degree in that field.

That leads to a shortage of qualified employees to fill positions in science and technology fields, which are experiencing an increasing demand for workers, Lipinski said.

“We need to do a better job at training our students,” Lipinski said.

For ideas on how that should be done, the congressmen turned to a panel of local education and industry leaders, who testified about the status of STEM education in Huntsville. Panelists spoke repeatedly of improved communication and collaboration between education and industry.

Andrew Partynski, chief technology officer for SAIC, told the congressmen that there is a lack of communication about what type of students the industry is seeking.

“We still have a lot to do with the universities to communicate the kind of needs we have,” Partynski said.

Dr. Neil Lamb, director of educational outreach for HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, agreed. Lamb said the industry needs students whose book-based learning is supplemented by hands-on experience.

For that, there need to be partnerships between schools and the industry to provide students with internships and other opportunities for experience, Partynski said.

Dr. Camille Wright, director of secondary instruction for Madison City Schools, said her district partners with local universities through initiatives such as dual enrollment and articulated credit. The business community also provides internships and job shadowing for students.

And an advisory committee of business and industry leaders helps guide the district on its curriculum. “They work with us to ensure that our curriculum matches the skill set needed in the industry,” Wright said.

Dr. Robert Altenkirch, president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, testified that internships with NASA and other industry leaders help higher education students better understand what they learn on campus.

When Brooks and Lipinski asked how the federal government could better promote scientific entities like HudsonAlpha and SAIC, Lamb of HudsonAlpha talked about preventing other industries from “poaching” STEM graduates.

Wright spoke out against the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which she said has forced school districts to narrow their focus on reading and math — to the detriment of science education.

“As an unintended consequence, that’s where your money will go,” Wright said.

Lamb said that the Bush-era legislation inflicted “enormous harm” on the way science is viewed in the country. His comment was met by applause from the small audience.

According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the move away from science is reflected in student performance. That assessment showed that just 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders in the nation scored at or above proficiency in physical science, life science, Earth science and space.

President Obama has said he is trying to change the focus of students’ education, placing on his agenda an $80 million proposal for a new competition designed to support effective STEM teacher preparation. His administration also hopes to create a $60 million fund to help improve math education.

Obama’s office announced the initiatives in February. They have been met with skepticism from some GOP leaders who question the price tag on the plans.

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