The Obama administration is continuing its push to advance math and science education this week, turning attention to early learning with the announcement of a slew of initiatives aimed at promoting the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, mathematics and engineering.
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The White House and Department of Education are positioning early STEM education as a key to the administration's goal of elevating the nation's competitive position, both by measure of student achievement and, in the longer view, by the economic and social benefits that follow from a workforce with a solid foundation in the subjects that are increasingly critical to the 21st century economy.
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"Early learning has a huge return on investment for the country," Education Secretary John King said Thursday at the White House STEM symposium. "When some think of it as an expense, we would argue it's not an expense -- it's an investment, a long-term investment that realizes savings in better long-term academic outcomes, better long-term health outcomes, better long-term success in the workforce."
King cited research pegging the net yield from early STEM education at eight- to nine-fold over the initial investment.
The Obama administration has made the STEM fields a hallmark of its education policy. In 2011, the president laid out the goal of bringing an additional 100,000 high-quality teachers into those fields in a decade, part of a broader initiative that is largely supported by companies in the tech sector that say they struggle with recruiting and hiring skilled workers.
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Roberto Rodríguez, deputy assistant to the president for education, observed that the STEM fields, with exploration and experimentation at their core, are a natural fit for young children.
"It really shouldn't be hard to foster that love for STEM learning early. As any parent or teacher will know, children are born curious -- they're born natural scientists and explorers," Rodriguez said.
The administration is casting a wide net in its call for more exposure to the STEM fields at an early age. "Part of a high-quality learning experience, whether in a child-care setting, whether in a preschool classroom, or a Head Start program, means having access to high-quality STEM learning," Rodriguez said.
Groups within and outside of government working to support STEM efforts
To support those goals, the White House is highlighting a host of efforts both within and outside of government, including a new partnership between the departments of Education and Health and Human Services and the Too Small to Fail initiative to develop a set of resources for families to help them "incorporate STEM concepts and vocabularies into everyday routines," according to a White House fact sheet.
"When you talk, read and sing with your child, you're helping her learn," reads a tip sheet from the new initiative. "It can be as simple as counting your baby's toes during bath time, asking your toddler a question about the sky, or encouraging preschool-age children to build with blocks!"
The Education and Health and Human Services departments are also jointly developing a policy statement that will chart a course for the role of technology in early education.
In the private sector, groups ranging from the Jim Henson Company to the Girl Scouts of America and Nickelodeon are pledging money and resources to support STEM-themed education, television programming and teacher training, among other efforts.
A full list of the STEM commitments the White House has secured can be found here.