Boosting math and science education

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Foundation conference focuses on STEM

By Roger Snodgrass

The time is ripe for STEM, according to President Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, to name a few well-known supporters.

STEM is short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It’s a political strategy for transforming an educational policy that proponents believe will not only improve learning results in general, but also restore America’s slumping vitality in the global marketplace.

The concept has traction in New Mexico, which has the third-highest population of STEM jobs per capita in the nation, thanks largely to military and national laboratory projects. Lately, STEM advocates and educational policy makers have developed a goal to become one of the top states in the country by 2012.

On Tuesday, Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation devoted much of its annual conference on education to the state’s evolving version of STEM, known as New Mexico Project 2012.

Katherine Cross Maple, deputy secretary for learning and accountability in the Department of Public Education, led a panel of distinguished educators, administrators and key political figures in a discussion of the current prospects for advancing the concept to the next level.

The current situation leaves much to be desired. In 2009, only 42 percent of New Mexico students ranked “proficient” or above in eighth grade math. Also in 2009, a smaller percentage — 27 percent — ranked “proficient” or above in eighth grade science.

Digging into the statistics Maple noted that these poor numbers did not reflect significant improvements that have taken place, despite the low numbers, among subgroups of disadvantaged and minority students.

Mentioning a host of other educational initiatives under way in the state, she asked panelist Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Bernalillo what the impact of the budget cuts that the Legislature wrestled with all year would be and which are expected to continue in the regular session in January.

“Our job is to make the case for focusing on math and science education,” she said. “The choices are uncomfortable,” said Arnold-Jones, emphasizing education. “There is a tangible goal that is worth the sacrifices that will be required.” Arnold-Jones has entered the race for governor.

Without advancing the STEM agenda, she said, “We will remain in a state of potential; I prefer the state of excellence.

Rep. Rick Miera, D-Bernalillo, spelled out what is at stake in the next legislature, warning that the lawmakers may be looking at a $1 billion budget shortfall. Although the education budget escaped with only a .7 percent cut, he noted, state agencies took a 7.5 percent hit.

New educational initiatives are expected to have an uphill haul.

“It took years of work by you all,” Miera said. “But now some of those legislators are gone and the new ones have not been educated. They want to take back what it took years to build up.”

To begin to implement the STEM program next year, he said, would require $7.5 million to have school laboratories brought up to par and an additional 99 math and science teachers.

The foundation’s annual conference resumed after a hiatus last year, with this year’s focus on realizing the STEM agenda despite the obstacles.

Among the speakers, the former superintendent of schools in El Centro, Calif., Michael Klentschy made a case for the far-reaching and positive effects of the elementary program science education. Klentschy described the “inquiry-based” program that he helped create and has been studying since then that lifted the poorest of California’s 58 county into the highest ranks of California schools.

Three teachers from Española Public Schools, participants in the LANL Math and Science Academy were recognized for exemplary achievement — Beth Sanchez of James H. Rodriguez Elementary, LeAnn DeCoer of Fairview Elementary and Norma Lara of San Juan Elementary.

STEM’s potential for improving the educational experience has been heralded for several years now, since Norm Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, led a blue ribbon panel in 2005 to answer a pair of questions posed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The senators asked for “the top 10 actions in priority order, that federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper and be secure in the global community of the 21st century.”

The answers were contained in the report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a call to action on the subject of the declining U.S. stature in technological, by offering scholarships to10,000 new science and mathematics teachers annually and “thereby educating 10 million minds.”

More than 400 people attended the Los Alamos National Foundation’s annual conference on education at Buffalo Thunder.