STEM Ed Bills Are Deja Vu All Over, with One Twist

Same Song, Different Verse

In the last Congress, STEM education legislation came in large numbers and lots of flavors. Even so, the popularity of the issue – on both sides of the aisle – did not yield any bills actually making it through Congress. With Republicans now in charge of both the Senate and House and a presidential campaign season cranking up, have the prospects for action changed? Republican congressional leaders would have us believe so. We’ll see.

The best bet might well be the Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act (HR 823), introduced by Democratic Representative Paul Tonko (NY-20). Unusual among the pieces introduced, this bill has meaningful co-sponsorship from both sides of the aisle.

If the 114th Congress can accomplish more than the 113th – a low bar, to be sure – STEM education would be a good place to start. Both Republicans and Democrats show interest in working the issue, albeit from different angles of approach.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

As in the last Congress, Republicans take a narrow approach to supporting STEM education and work. Among their more-targeted approaches is a strong interest in enlarging visa quotas to allow more foreign-born STEM degree-holders to enter and stay in the United States. With sponsors in parentheses, here is a breakdown of Republican STEM-related bills:

Funds for veterans’ STEM education activities:

  • HR 748, GI Bill STEM Extension Act (David McKinley, WV-01)

Defining STEM to include computer science:

  • HR 1020, STEM Education Act of 2015 (Lamar Smith, TX-21)

Increase the allotment of visas, primarily H-1B’s, for foreign STEM degree holders:

  • S 98, STEM Jobs Act of 2015 (David Vitter, LA)
  • S 153, I-Squared Act (Orrin Hatch, UT)
  • S 181, Startup Act (Jerry Moran, KS)

These proposals are all revivals of legislation introduced in the 113th Congress.

D's Taking Their Cuts, Too

Democrats see a larger role for government in STEM education and often lace issues of social equity into their bills. Representative Mike Honda (CA-17) has reintroduced HR 565, his “Stepping Up to STEM Education Act,” a comprehensive approach to advancing STEM education that would, among other things:

 Representative Mike Honda

Representative Mike Honda

  • Support educational technology R&D aimed at improving student achievement
  • Fund activities dedicated to advancing STEM achievement in classroom and afterschool activities
  • Highlight promising research and best practices in STEM education
  • Promote rigorous college and career readiness measures, especially for students in under-represented groups
  • Enhance pre- and in-service STEM teacher training

In a nod to local control of education, the bill also forbids the Secretary of Education from endorsing particular STEM curricula or directing state, local, or district education entities to adopt specific programs or materials. (Yes, that’s post-traumatic Common Core stress surfacing between the lines.)

Besides the Honda and Tonko bills, Democrats have introduced other bills in various areas, with sponsor noted:

Diversity programs:

  • HR 467, STEM Opportunities Act of 2015 (Eddie Bernice Johnson, TX-30)
  • HR 840, STEM Gateways Act (Joseph Kennedy, MA-04)

Teacher training:

  • HR 794, STEM Master Teacher Corps Act (Mike Honda), with a companion bill in the Senate, S 402 (Al Franken, MN)

Afterschool engineering:

  • HR 831, Supporting Afterschool STEM Act (Joaquin Castro, TX-20), with a companion bill in the Senate, S 444 (Jeanne Shaheen, NH)

STEM career and technical education support:

  • HR 922, STEM Prep Act (Alma Adams, NC-12)

STEM networks, teacher training, and program assessment:

  • S 419, STEM Support for Teachers in Education and Mentoring Act (Tom Udall, NM)

STEM education and career activities, support for teachers, student participation in STEM competitions, non-traditional STEM teaching and mentoring:

  • S 442, Innovation Inspiration School Grant Program Act (Jeanne Shaheen, NH)

All these proposals mark return engagements for similar bills introduced in the last session of Congress.

HR 823 Takes an Inside Lane

 Representative Paul Tonko

Representative Paul Tonko

Paul Tonko, himself an engineer, introduced HR 823, the Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act in the last Congress, as well. The new version reprises elements from the last one, emphasizing that it does not create new programs. Rather, it seeks to create dedicated space for engineering skills and practices within existing science standards, curricula and materials, teacher professional development programs, and research activities.

An example of how Tonko seeks to integrate engineering into existing activities appears in treatment of the Math and Science Partnerships (MSP) program. The bill acts to reconceptualize this program as the “STEM Partnerships” program, making engineering and technology explicit, co-equal dimensions of the teacher pre- and in-service training opportunities supported by the MSP program.

For both “branding” and programmatic purposes, this change is important. One of the greatest obstacles to getting engineering into K-12 learning has been the dearth of teachers qualified to teach the subject. If both money and opportunity are understood to be available to people interested in teaching K-12 engineering, this dearth would certainly abate.

Advocating for the Change

Driving the bill within the STEM advocacy world has been the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL), an initiative of the Boston Museum of Science. The president of the museum is Ioannis Miaoulis, who took office in 2003 after a distinguished career at Tufts University that included a stint as dean of the School of Engineering. Miaoulis pushed often for engineering in K-12 education as dean, always pointing out that we live closer to the engineered world than the natural one. Yet we study the latter, not the former, in school. Soon after becoming president of the Museum of Science, he led the launch of the NCTL as a vehicle for illustrating the pervasive importance of engineering and technology to audiences of all ages.

We hope that HR 823 will become law. We believe this is an exciting and necessary step forward in STEM education. The NCTL is honored to have worked with Rep. Tonko as he crafted this bill.
— Ioannis Miaoulis

The Washington office of the NCTL is active in STEM advocacy. Led by Managing Director Patti Curtis, the NCTL has focused on promoting the “E” pieces of STEM policy to Members of Congress and the executive branch. Curtis is a veteran of STEM policy efforts, dating back to her time at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Among the notches on her advocacy belt was getting “engineering” written into the original legislation that defined MSP eligibility rules. As a result, the MSP was opened up to hundreds of engineering schools, enabling their faculty members to introduce engineering ideas and content into the teacher training activities supported by the program’s funding streams.

You Can Help

Most of the bills discussed above have few co-sponsors, at most six or seven other Members of Congress signed up. If you think these bills should get wider support, contact the office of your local representative or senator. Congress is back in session this week after the Presidents’ Day recess, and early in the session is the time to make things happen.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com