STEM Careers Unable to “Blast Off” With Budget Cuts and Lip Service

Last Wednesday, June 6, Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD) hosted the forum, Blastoff: Encouraging Young People to Enter and Stay in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Fields. Though Edwards serves on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, most of us were surprised to learn that in her previous life, the congresswoman had worked for Lockheed Engineering at Goddard Space Flight Center on NASA’s Spacelab program, where she managed a team of hardware, software, and systems engineers.

As a woman of color, Congresswoman Edwards’ dedication to the STEM field development is not only admirable but commendable. Edwards is a role model for other women of color who are interested in entering the STEM fields, which suffer from a disparity in both women and minorities. Unfortunately, as a woman of color myself and former educator, I thought the forum failed to address the fundamental flaws in STEM education reform— lack of funding (further exacerbated by the recent elimination of the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Program- WANTO) and focus on the training of nontraditional students, such as women and minorities.

 

As a former middle school and high school math teacher, I couldn’t help nodding my head vigorously throughout the panel discussions. The pressure of meeting high stakes testing standards took away from my classroom time and creativity. Each year, I had less and less time for projects, because it was more important to teach quick and easy techniques for getting the correct answer in a certain allotted time. Naturally, math class becomes a chore when all you do is solve math problems and no one explains how it matters in the real world.

I find panel discussions to be a lot like self-confidence seminars. When you are there, everyone is on the same page, nodding and agreeing. Everyone in that room agreed that STEM education was important and we needed to do more for our children. But like self-confidence seminars, you eventually have to leave the room or auditorium and face the real world. It is nice to hear a panel of all men talk about incorporating more women in STEM careers, but when you leave the room, that’s all it is. Nice. It is not productive.

It was also nice for the hosts to invite the local high school robotics club members, but it was not nice to see that they were all boys. These young men were being lauded for their interest in STEM and basically courted by representatives from NASA, DuPont, and other possible future employers. Didn’t anyone else wonder: where are the young women?

Ironically, the next day a House committee agreed to repeal the law that authorizes the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) program. WANTO works to directly recruit, train, and place women into technical and trade fields traditionally dominated by males. If Congress fails to take a balanced approach to the deficit (including new revenues) , sequestration or more drastic budget plans will further cut nondefense discretionary (NDD) programs, including education. This will lead to fewer teachers in the classroom, fewer job opportunities, and fewer scientific and technological innovations.

When we are cutting funding to women and minorities left and right, can STEM careers really “blast off”? With budget cuts to those who need services the most, we will continue to see shortages in STEM fields. If we want to compete with other nations and find innovative ways to solve tomorrow’s problems, can we afford to ignore women and minorities?

Amy Sun
WOW Federal Policy Intern
Teach For America (Hawai’i Corps 2007)

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