July | August 2017

by Sean Slone
STEM programs at every education level can require significant investments from the government and private sector. That’s because cost drivers—like teacher training and retention and purchasing equipment for high-tech classrooms and laboratories—can make STEM education a pricey investment.
“Iowa's state government invests in STEM education at lots of levels and in lots of ways,” said Jimmy Centers, communications director for Iowa’s Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. “The bulk of Iowa's legislative investment in STEM goes toward the scaling up of exemplary STEM programs to educators and learners across Iowa—almost 3,000 teachers this year, and over 100,000 youth. Over 90 percent of the state investment goes toward programming all together.”
The state legislature provides $5.2 million annually for the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, which helps coordinate all the state’s STEM efforts among the various stakeholders.
But when it comes to STEM education funding, it is still relatively rare for state governments to make dedicated appropriations available at a level above what states receive from the federal government’s Math and Science Partnership Program, which divvies up $150 million in grants to states each year for teacher professional development in the STEM areas. That can make enlisting new corporate partners difficult, said James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based alliance of more than 600 business, professional and education organizations.
“It’s a frustrating thing for the business community to hear that in most states there’s not a STEM funding line item,” Brown said. “They don’t separate out professional development or hiring of teachers in the STEM subjects from how that’s supported in the state education formula in general. There aren’t subject-specific lines in state education budgets in most states.”
Another source of frustration for state governments and corporations alike, said Brown, is that they don’t always know what they’re getting for their investments in STEM education. While some individual STEM programs have achieved a level of scale in school districts around the country and been assessed for their effectiveness, many others have not.
“It’s a big challenge for companies to be effective in getting the most out of their investments in education because education and business are just different worlds and the time scale for managing and measuring improvements can be frustrating for the business community,” Brown said.
One area where corporations see great promise is in informal STEM education, including state science fairs and other outside-­the-classroom competitions that can provide kids exposure to STEM-related fields, reinforce their classroom experiences and even accelerate their job prospects. Brown said a prime example is the FIRST Robotics Competition—founded by inventor Dean Kamen and supported by corporations like Lockheed Martin, Intel and Texas Instruments—which now has contact with 400,000 students every year.
“Investments in the informal sphere are easier for companies to make because there are (fewer) rules in that world,” Brown said. “This is an area where companies have really been investing aggressively and are starting to see the kinds of measurable outcomes that make investments … easier to justify to their corporate boards and to the investors in the company.”
But many believe demonstrating success is an important key to increasing funding for formal, in-the-classroom STEM programs, as well.
“At our first STEM Council meeting, we learned from business representatives … that Iowa needed a trusted central portal to serve up proven successful programs,” said Centers in Iowa. “That's exactly what we did in creating the proposal system—screening through a rigorous rubric of all those STEM program providers to serve up a short list of proven winners. Since doing so, a number of private sector partners have collectively invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in helping to spread those programs across Iowa. We fully expect that trend to grow.”
State governments and the private sector have found common ground in funding STEM scholarship programs in some states. With Washington state’s two largest employers, Microsoft and Boeing, clamoring for a well-educated workforce, state lawmakers in 2011 created the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships for low- and middle-income students to study STEM and health care fields at Washington’s public universities. State Sen. Andy Hill is among the lawmakers who have helped steadily increase funding for the scholarship program in recent state budgets.
“We want to make sure that there are not barriers to getting these STEM degrees and our Opportunity Scholarship Program I especially like, because it is a public-private partnership and so the state matches private donations,” he said. “If you look at Boeing and Microsoft, they put $50 million into the Opportunity Scholarship Fund. … I think (the program) is a great example of where we can get corporations involved, where they see their money being spent wisely in a targeted way.”
Hill said the Opportunity Scholarship Fund is indicative of “a nice little symbiotic relationship” between government and the private sector that is allowing each to fill a need.
“In Washington state, we are a net importer of STEM degrees,” he said, referencing a two-year-old report from a consulting group that showed the state had 25,000 high-tech jobs that had been open for 90 days or longer. “We’ve got all these great jobs in Washington state. Are our students and our residents going to be able to fill these jobs or are we going to have to go out of state or out of the country to get them?”