By Susan H. Hildreth
Quality STEM education is important for the nation as a whole and for individual citizens. A robust and capable STEM workforce is crucial to United States competiveness. Research links STEM education to the future security and economic success of the United States, and opportunities for STEM-related careers are increasing. However, we know that students in the U.S. rank in the middle of the pack compared to their peers internationally, and, in some economic sectors, job applicants do not have the STEM knowledge and problem-solving skills that employers need.
It is gratifying to see that at the national level, the role of informal learning in supporting major student outcomes in STEM education—and, in particular, of libraries and museums—is recognized in two National Research Council reports, STEM Learning is Everywhere and STEM Integration in K-12.
The National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 reports that public interest in informal learning opportunities is high. In fact, the majority of Americans visit zoos, natural history museums, aquariums, or science technology centers each year. It is clear that these institutions play an essential role in reaching the public, inspiring STEM interest, and supporting STEM skills. A comprehensive strategy to improve STEM achievement must embrace informal learning opportunities.
Just this summer, the Board on Science Education assembled a 13-person expert committee, led by our National Museum and Library Services Board member Eric Jolly, to develop a concise primer on successful out-of-school STEM learning based on evidence of successful practice and informed by a 2-day public workshop that explores the current evidence. The primer on best practices in out-of-school STEM learning will be written for policy-makers, funders, nonprofit and private industry representatives, and other representatives from civic society.
Here at IMLS, we established a funding priority for STEM-related projects in FY 2014 and FY 2015.* I am pleased to announce that we have invested more than $23 million in 140 STEM-related projects during FY 2013 and FY 2014.
All types of libraries—public, academic, school, and tribal—are represented in our portfolio, and many museum disciplines, from science tech centers to art museums to zoos. These programs are supporting teachers, faculty, and classroom learning, are providing quality out-of-school opportunities, and are reaching underserved populations. They also help prepare library and museum professionals to create programs that help citizens develop a broad range of STEM skills, from data mining to video production and more.
I encourage you to take a look at the descriptions of these recently funded programs. I promise you will be astonished at the variety and depth of these investments. We will be following this work and continuing to strategically invest in strengthening STEM learning experiences.
*This article was updated on October 6, 2014 to reflect that IMLS’s has funding priority for STEM learning in FY 2014 and FY 2015.