Ayah Idris, 14, learns how to analyze DNA at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, is in danger of being cut. Image: Jeanne Ting Chowning
Ayah Idris, 14, spent two weeks of her summer isolating strawberry DNA at a Seattle cancer research center, watching heart cells pulse in a dish and learning about ethical guidelines for animal research.
The Summer Fellows program “sparked a little passion in me,” says Ayah, a rising 10th-grader whose parents are from Eritrea. “I was kind of interested in science before, but I didn’t really know that much about it. Now I know that science in the real world is what I want to do.”
This type of inspiring dive into the rigors and rewards of a career in science would seem to be a perfect antidote to the national hand-wringing over the slipping state of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in the U.S. In addition to offering the kinds of inquiry-based experiences that have been shown to best promote science learning, programs such as the Summer Fellows bring kids in contact with the latest scientific advances that have yet to be published in textbooks. Now, the funds that bolster these programs are in danger.
The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget lays out a sweeping restructuring intended to consolidate STEM education in the U.S. into three agencies—the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution—and to cut down on the inefficiency of overlapping initiatives. Funding overall for STEM programs is actually slated to increase by 6 percent, to $3 billion, under the proposal. But support for popular educational initiatives from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with those from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, appears to have been lost in the consolidation shuffle. It’s instructive to examine the changes to education about health, often the area of science students identify with most.The $15.4 million Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA) administered by the NIH, for instance, are on the chopping block: they fund 60 or so programs such as the one Idris attended, along with museum exhibits, classroom curricula, teacher professional development, mobile science lab buses and Web sites. Each year, SEPA programs reach more than 80,000 K-12 students in person and provide learning resources for millions of students and educators online; the SEPA grants account for the bulk of the money powering the nation’s informal health science education that takes place outside formal classroom programs.
Perhaps even more bewildering about the budget-trimming is the understanding among SEPA recipients that the NIH Office of Science Education, which oversees the coordination of the agency’s education efforts, is poised to shut its doors September 30, according to Louisa Stark, a genetics professor at the University of Utah. In total, the NIH is slated to lose $26 million. Sequestration cuts have made the situation more dire. “Facing extraordinary budget uncertainties, it’s a question of prioritization,” says Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director at the NIH. Still, he remains hopeful that other coordinating agencies will take advantage of the NIH’s expertise. “We continue to feel that K-12 STEM education is extremely important, and we want to do what we can to make sure any new programs launched are accurate and reflect the most recent modern science.”
Tabak wouldn’t confirm the scheduled closing of the NIH Office of Science Education, but Jeanne Ting Chowning, senior director at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research who developed the Summer Fellows program, says employees are scrambling to find a repository for the Office’s storehouse of educational materials and searching for an new online home for reams of science curricula once the official Web site eventually goes dark.
“It really is an emergency,” says Chowning, whose organization promotes an understanding of biomedical research and ethics both in and out of the classroom. More than half her budget comes from the U.S. government; the rest is from membership, sponsors and foundations. “The key is that these supplements from the Office of Science Education are developed and vetted by the highest-quality scientists we have in our country,” Chowning says. “As a teacher, you know you can trust their integrity.”