STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Obama talks often of the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, or STEM, education. Here he is the other night, hosting scores of young people for Astronomy Night at the White House.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some of you might be on your way to Mars. America can do anything. We've just got to keep on encouraging every new generation to explore and invent and create and discover.
INSKEEP: But look at the giant federal education bill known as No Child Left Behind that Congress is now trying to update. There is concern that STEM education is getting nice PR, but not much support. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: No, let's not go to Capitol Hill. Let's go to the classroom. A hard-boiled egg is stuck in the opening of a glass milk bottle. Newspaper and matches are called in. Call it a controlled blaze.
LYNN BAJOREK: So can I have someone raise their hand and tell me what they see that changed?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: It's going to explode.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: It's going to go down.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: The fire went out.
WESTERVELT: It's late afternoon at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif. A few dozen kids swarm in from the playground for some hands-on experiments about pressure. Soon after the newspaper burns off, the egg atop the glass jar is sucked inside.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Why?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: The egg is going in.
WESTERVELT: Volunteer instructor Lynn Bajorek is a senior at UC Berkeley. The cognitive neuroscience major has a midterm to study for. But she and some other Cal undergrads make time to volunteer every week to promote project-based STEM education and local afterschool programs in the East Bay.
BAJOREK: Raise your hand if you know what a hypothesis is.
WESTERVELT: This elementary school, Rosa Parks, is lucky. They have a solid science program. But several of the elementary schools Bajorek and her team visit don't have any science curriculum at all.
BAJOREK: Time for science, especially experimental, fun science demos, is completely cut out. So we want to kind of bring that back for kids or for kids who don't just want to memorize definitions. It's much more engaging - a fun way to explore science.
WESTERVELT: Many local, state and federal bodies have come up short in their support of science education. So a national patchwork of groups, nonprofits, foundations, volunteers and companies are trying to fill the gaps. And there are big gaps. A case-in-point is the ongoing attempt, some eight years running, to rewrite the federal No Child Left Behind law. The version of the law the House recently passed eliminates the largest source of science ed. funding in the federal government. James Brown is director of the advocacy group the STEM Ed. Coalition.
JAMES BROWN: There's an existing program called the Math and Science Partnership Program. The House bill would eliminate that program. The House bill would eliminate any specific focus on STEM education as a priority.
WESTERVELT: Now, the Senate version is better on STEM. It expands the range of federal funds for science education, bolsters afterschool STEM programs and creates a science education master teacher corps. But with hard-line House Republicans in full revolt, chances aren't great that the Senate STEM provisions will survive the inevitable horse-trading. Physics professor Michael Lubell with the American Physical Society would like to see the federal government prioritize STEM the same way, say, the National Institutes of Health prioritize finding ways to diagnose, prevent and cure human disease. If not, Lubell argues, the nearly 25 percent of American children who live in poverty will continue to see the STEM education achievement gap widen.
MICHAEL LUBELL: Certainly they don't have the access to the same kinds of facilities, the same quality teaching that other children have. We're essentially writing off almost a third of our population.
WESTERVELT: If you look to Capitol Hill, Lubell says, STEM education today is at serious risk of being the child left behind. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.
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