An Advocate for STEM Before STEM Even Existed

Patti Curtis, Director of the Washington Office of the National Center for Technological Literacy, has been front and center in STEM education policy debates for more than 15 years.

Patti Curtis, Director of the Washington Office of the National Center for Technological Literacy, has been front and center in STEM education policy debates for more than 15 years.

The straight story on STEM education policy

As a term and concept, “STEM education” can seem so popular and pervasive that we might assume it has always been a landmark in the territory of K-12 teaching and learning.

Not so. In fact, only 15 years ago, it scarcely existed, used only incidentally among a wide variety of terms signifying education in quantitatively oriented, technical fields.

Present and prominent since the beginning of the “STEM education” story has been Patti Curtis, Director of Washington Office for the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL, an initiative of the Museum of Science, Boston).

Towards the end of the summer, we prevailed upon Patti to share, out of her voluminous experience and insider’s understanding, some perspectives on STEM education, and especially the “E” in STEM: where it’s been, where it is now, and where it might be going.

Patti gave generously of her time, and we are glad to present her thoughts in lightly edited form below.

The invention of “STEM education”

In the late 1990’s, an array of cultural and economic forces – including the communications and information technology boom, international testing disparities, and increasingly innovation-driven global competitiveness – amplified interest in science, math, engineering, and technology education, especially at K-12 levels.

These fields, it was understood, lay at the foundation of the fast-growing, technology-driven economy that helped make the ‘90’s such a heady time. How to promote achievement in them came to seem vital to national policy interests.

Acting on these ideas, people organized, in Washington, DC, and elsewhere. An advocacy community emerged that encompassed science, mathematics, engineering, and technology disciplines, as well as the varied industries employing people with knowledge of them.

How these fields coalesced into “STEM education” is, in large measure, the story of what policy advocates argued about and for at the turn of the 21st century and what they have worked to sustain and enlarge ever since.

Early and staunchly stepping in

Patti started working on the K-12 education topics that would evolve into “STEM education” while she was with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She joined NCTL in 2005, and throughout these years, Patti has worked hard in the advocacy community to build the political support, program funding streams, and public awareness that help to sustain STEM education activities across the country. Her long experience and effective work in the field have made her a recognized authority on STEM education policy.

Our interview with Patti

START ENGINEERING:

You’ve been doing “STEM education” policy work since before there was such a thing as “STEM education.” How did you get started working on policy issues related to science, technology, engineering, and math education?

PATTI:

In the late 1990’s, I had been working for a small business trade association so I was familiar with workforce issues and the related Congressional committees. 

I moved over to ASME (the American Society of Mechanical Engineers), which was then seeking a legislative representative to handle their new K-12 education portfolio.  At that time, most NGO’s were focused on purely math and science education and teacher professional development. 

One organization that was making inroads in engineering education was the Museum of Science, Boston, led by former Tufts University Dean of Engineering, Ioannis Miaoulis. In 2005, he brought me on to further K-12 engineering at the national level.

START ENGINEERING:

You are the Director of the Washington Office for the National Center for Technological Literacy in Washington, DC. Can you tell us about your work there?

PATTI:

Hands-on learning at the Museum of Science in Boston helps teach kids what engineering is all about.

Hands-on learning at the Museum of Science in Boston helps teach kids what engineering is all about.

The Museum’s goal through the NCTL is to foster an understanding of the engineered world by infusing technology and engineering into K-12 schools and museums nationwide. By applying science and mathematics as well as engineering processes, children and adults can solve real world problems and learn about the creation and implications of technologies. We aim to inspire our nation’s next generation of innovators, inventors, and engineers.

The current state of things

START ENGINEERING:

How would you describe the state of STEM education policy right now?

PATTI:

In the past, STEM seemed a panacea for 21st-century workforce development, economic growth, and national security.  But it was tougher than I imagined to get a STEM focus in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was a tremendous inclination to leave priority-setting to the states and local school districts. 

Now STEM is part of the definition of a “well-rounded education,” which includes arts, music, PE, CS, etc.  Of course, these are all important opportunities for students, but STEM could take a back seat if it is not made a state priority. 

And for us, the “E” in STEM is what really sets it apart from just math and science.  Engineering is the integrator.  Ideally, students use math and science knowledge to engineer technical solutions to societal problems.  To me, that is the essence of integrated STEM education. The subjects should not be taught in silos.

START ENGINEERING:

How does the future look for STEM education resources and visibility?

PATTI:

STEM may have seen its peak.  That’s not to say there won’t be future peaks.  It is a bit of a roller coaster.  There is a lot of competition for federal dollars now that many programs have been rolled into bigger block grants.  The intensity of STEM-focused education will be dependent on state leaders and state advocacy. Computer science is attracting a lot of attention now in K-12 education.  I really respect the effort and the advocates.  It is essential that we offer more students access to computer science classes.  The Museum is working on computational thinking concepts for elementary students so they don’t shy away if and when they have the opportunity to take CS classes in middle and high school.

The STEM education policy environment

START ENGINEERING:

The policy world can seem mysterious and complex from the outside (and the inside, for that matter). Can you describe in general outline how it all works? How do the ideas and desires people develop for action in STEM education end up getting translated into federal laws and policies?

PATTI:

It takes a long time.  ESEA reauthorization took eight years.  You have to be a credible resource.  You have to develop positive relationships with key leaders in Congress.  You have to show that your solution is worthy, actionable, and replicable.  Data and research reports are important.  But grassroots examples of what it looks like in a particular district or state are also helpful in demonstrating efficacy.

START ENGINEERING:

STEM education legislation has typically enjoyed bipartisan support. Is this still the case? Why, or why not?

PATTI:

Yes, this is a bipartisan issue; everyone agrees STEM plays an important role in workforce development.  There's mounting evidence that a STEM background can open up more lucrative job opportunities.   BUT, not everyone agrees on how to fund it and at what levels.  It’s like motherhood and apple pie, no one can disagree with the merits, but it’s the size of the slice and who’s in charge of the pie that matter now.

A brave, new ESSA world?

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, bringing eight years of debate over federal education policy to a resolution, at least for now.

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, bringing eight years of debate over federal education policy to a resolution, at least for now.

START ENGINEERING:

Let’s talk a bit about ESSA. After years of controversy over education policy under No Child Left Behind, a successor law came into place last year, ESSA, or the Every Student Succeeds Act. What impact do you see it having on STEM education?

PATTI:

A coalition has formed around getting full or greater appropriations for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG), found in Title IV, Part. A.  The grant was authorized at $1.65 billion.  Currently, the Senate Appropriations Committee bill only offers $300 million and the House appropriation bill includes $1billion.   A conference committee will have to settle on a final number or punt until after the elections with a continuing resolution and perhaps a lame duck session.

START ENGINEERING:

What are some of the significant changes ESSA will bring to STEM education?

PATTI:

States will have much greater authority over how federal funds are spent and accountability measures.  States should be thinking about their state plans now and how priorities are being set.  Advocates are scrambling to get STEM out front, but so are other advocates in music, counseling, PE, etc. 

ESSA also includes a key provision in Title I that provides funding for state assessments.  States can now use this stream of funding to alter their science assessments to include engineering design skills and practices.  This is HUGE for states that have adopted Next Generation Science Standards (and those that already have engineering in their standards) so they can align their assessments accordingly.  We expect that revised assessments, in addition to NGSS or revised standards, will help change classroom instruction.  Now all engineering advocates should encourage their state departments of education to use this option.

The current legislative landscape

START ENGINEERING:

A new version of the America COMPETES bill was introduced in the Senate last June, called the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 3084). This bill provides a broad framework for funding many facets of the country’s research and development program, including important parts of the STEM education world.

Can you describe what this bill would do, why it’s important, and what prospects for passage might be?

PATTI:

As you said, COMPETES has traditionally authorized the science mission federal agencies to focus their research-and-development efforts to insure the U.S. remains competitive in the global economy.  The first iteration included a focus on math and science teachers but these provisions were never funded and dropped in subsequent versions.  This go-round, the Senate version does place an emphasis on informal STEM education, among other things, at the NSF, a role that was almost stripped from NSF in a previous budget proposal.  It is unlikely to become law this session.  The House bill also recognizes the importance of informal science education but there are other areas of the bill that have made a bipartisan compromise less likely. Perhaps the next Congress can get it done.

START ENGINEERING:

What else are you watching in Congress?

PATTI:

The Perkins career and technical education reauthorization is also pending in this Congress.  After some wrangling, this too includes a STEM provision.  The House Education and the Workforce Committee passed H.R. 5587, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act.  It is sponsored by Rep. Thompson (R-PA) and cosponsored by Reps. Byrne (R-AL), Curbelo (R-FL), Clark (D-MA), Langevin (D-RI), and Nolan (D-MN). 

And on September 13, in fact, the full House passed H.R. 5587, reauthorizing the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The vote was 405 to 5, showing the broad support for this program across both parties. The Senate is considering its own version of the bill, and there are significant differences to reconcile before final passage. Not sure they can get it done this session.

START ENGINEERING:

Who would you cite as champions, not only for STEM, but specifically for K-12 engineering?

PATTI:

Representative Paul Tonko and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as their staff members, have been stalwart champions of K-12 engineering education during the past four terms of Congress.

They’ve been strong supporters ever since 2010 when they both introduced the Engineering Education for Innovation Act and again in 2011, then the Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act in 2013 and again in 2015.  These bills reinforced the importance of the E in STEM and the resulting ESSA clearly includes engineering, whereas NCLB focused primarily on math and reading. Kudos are also due cosponsors, including Representatives Joe Kennedy and David McKinley (also engineers).

STEM efforts in the executive branch

START ENGINEERING:

The Obama Administration has been active in STEM education policy on many fronts, with initiatives like Educate to Innovate, Computer Science for All (CS for All), and 100K in 10. Can you talk about some of these policies and why they are important? Have they been effective as sources of change and progress in STEM?

PATTI:

I think the Administration has been providing a constant drum beat for STEM education and has urged the private sector to the extent possible to fill in the gaps.  The FY2014 budget proposal threw STEM advocates for a loop with an unwanted reorganization but we were able to ameliorate it through Congress.  The President has used the White House to draw greater attention to and focus on science, computer science and the Maker Movement with a variety of high profile White House events.

President Obama talks with six-year-old Daisies from Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the 2015 White House Science Fair. The girls won a prize for their project using LEGO pieces and a battery-powered page turner to help people who are paralyzed or have arthritis.

President Obama talks with six-year-old Daisies from Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the 2015 White House Science Fair. The girls won a prize for their project using LEGO pieces and a battery-powered page turner to help people who are paralyzed or have arthritis.

In 2010, the White House helped launch Change the Equation, and their corporate membership has done a wonderful job bringing STEM data to light and making the case for greater commitment to STEM equity in education and the workforce.

The President has also called on the philanthropic community to heed the STEM call to Action.  As a partner in 100Kin10’s quest to prepare 100,000 qualified STEM teachers, the Museum has surpassed its commitment to provide elementary teacher professional development at the Museum and via our extended network of PD partners.  We are also getting more involved in CS for All as we build off our successful The Science Behind Pixar exhibit and venture into that curricular field.

The impact of Next Generation Science Standards

START ENGINEERING:

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been adopted by 18 states and the District of Columbia. They include a substantial role for engineering in K-12 science education. What impact have you seen from NGSS on K-12 science education?

PATTI:

I think NGSS holds great potential for science and engineering education. This is such a new concept for many states, districts and teachers, especially at the elementary grades. We are experiencing tremendous success with our Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curricula and professional development demands.  Several large districts are implementing EiE and some small states have also adopted EiE. We estimate that we have reached 122,400 teachers and 10.5 million students with our engineering programs since 2004.  We are rolling out a new middle school series, Engineering Now, and a revised edition of our high school course, Engineering the Future, next year. Our current engineering middle school series, Building Math, is a great supplemental curriculum for math teachers who enjoy employing real world challenges in their instruction. And Engineering the Future is very popular with career and technology education teachers.

START ENGINEERING:

Are there other significant forces like NGSS working to raise the level of attention to engineering in K-12 education?

PATTI:

While the NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy Assessment of 8th-grade students in 2014 showed that girls were slightly ahead of boys, it also showed a disturbing gap between white students and minority and lower-SES students.  A good deal of this may be attributed to access to afterschool and summer engineering or STEM camps, exposure to science and technology centers, and STEM role models.  If integrated engineering is offered in all grades in all schools, these disparities are likely to disappear.  NAEP needs additional funding to conduct this assessment at the 4th grade and high school levels.  This would be very helpful data to have.

There are also folks like yourselves at Start Engineering, LinkEngineering.org, as well as the professional engineering societies that all support K-12 engineering. 

Fifteen years ago, engineering was outside of the typical K-12 space, while now it is seen as engaging, exciting, and beneficial to students. 

Outlook for the future

START ENGINEERING:

How, if at all, do you see engineering taking on a bigger role in K-12 learning? What are some of the biggest obstacles?

PATTI:

Many districts are pursuing NGSS, even if their state has not adopted or will not (for the foreseeable future) adopt the collaborative standards, because they see the value of the cross-curricular approach and the hands-on skills and practices.

Pre-service teacher training programs need to evolve to better align with NGSS, especially in states that have adopted.

Engineering advocates (i.e., engineers, science and technology museums, universities, faculty members, businesses, teachers, students, parents) can advocate for STEM funding and educational opportunities, and even better assessments that measure student skills and performance rather than just memorized facts.

START ENGINEERING:

Thanks, Patti, for the time and thought you put into sharing your insights with us. And thanks, also, for your work on behalf of both STEM in general and the E in STEM.

Being less visible than other types of work in STEM education, advocacy and policy work can seem esoteric.  But it’s vital to creating an environment in which teachers, students, outreach leaders, and community members can make the most out of their interests and abilities in STEM. Patti and her many collaborators in the STEM education policy world have done great service to the field.

Please share our exchanges with Patti among any interested colleagues or friends. We would be glad to hear any comments or questions on STEM education policy and the outlook in the near and far terms.


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

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

Now available! A bilingual version of Dream, Invent, Create, for making engineering come alive in Spanish and English at the same time.

Our Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

And for any outreach or education program, all of our popular K-12 engineering books, What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide, can help deliver an accessible, engaging picture of engineering to all kinds of K-12 audiences.


Photos: Patti Curtis, copyright Carl Cox Photography; Hands-on learning at the Museum of Science, copyright Michael Malyszko; President Obama signing ESSA, courtesy of The White House; President Obama with Daisies, courtesy of The White House.