Congress and the NIH should target a significant share of increases in federal research funding to university programs that partner with industry.

Industry-university partnerships not only spur more commercialization and innovation, they also boost STEM education outcomes. But these partnerships are the exception rather than the rule. To change this, federal agencies should require industry co-funding of many academic research centers, including all the NSF Engineering Research Centers. In addition, Congress should allocate funding for a tripling of NSF’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) program, to $21 million dollars. NIH should examine the NSF model and propose an equivalent program to Congress.

Congress needs to spur inclusion of entrepreneurship opportunities for STEM students.

Federal agencies supporting university research in STEM should adopt a policy whereby any graduate or post-doctoral student on an assistantship, fellowship, or other form of federal support can petition for a no-cost extension of their assistantship, fellowship, or traineeship, which would allow them to take a “entrepreneurial leave” for one to two years to start a company, and be guaranteed their former student position on their return. Congress should also make the necessary changes to SBIR authorization to enable students on “entrepreneurial leave” to fund their startups using SBIR monies; individuals who are currently full-time graduate or post-doctoral students would be explicitly eligible for such awards, even if they are foreign nationals, as long as their business is located in the United States. In addition, Congress should work with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that students who receive SBIR funding while on official “entrepreneurial leave” are still defined as full-time students, and not company employees, for visa purposes.

Congress should expand funding for NSF interdisciplinary higher education learning.

Approximately 75 percent of college students would prefer an interdisciplinary education, and such training is also needed for workforce skills. There are a number of steps that should be taken to expand interdisciplinary learning. Congress should expand the NSF IGERT Program by a factor of three, to $30 million in annual funding. Where allowed by law, federal agencies should redefine all federally-funded scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, and traineeships such that professors receiving students supported by such mechanisms must include some kind of interdisciplinary training experience for the student. Alternatively, OSTP can coordinate a multiagency effort to divorce student support from faculty research support. Faculty would apply for research grants as before, but when the grant arrives at the university, it arrives in two parts: a student support portion (tuition and stipend) that is awarded to a student and henceforth travels with the student; and a research support portion (professor salaries, equipment funds, materials, etc.) that stays with the professor. This approach frees students to pursue their own educational interests – which tend to be much more highly interdisciplinary than the narrow in-field research needs of the professor.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy considers expanding undergraduate research opportunities, particularly during freshman year.

Because undergraduate research is a highly engaging experience with a track record of greatly diminishing student dropout/switch out from STEM, such experiences should be moved to student’s first year of college, as a prophylactic against dropout/switch out endemic to the freshman year. Such a move could increase national B.S. output by as much as 20 percent. To facilitate this transition, the President should issue an Executive Order requesting 30 percent or more of federal-agency-funded undergraduate research experiences be moved to the freshman year and summer following. Prior to the White House issuing the order, OSTP can be directed to arrive at a list of programs that would be affected by such an order, and asked for process suggestions that would allow for a smooth transition to the new model.

Congressional leaders should increase the development of online STEM learning tools.

Virtual schools, video games, and other software-based learning can play a key role in boosting STEM education. But more and better tools need to be developed. Congress should allocate $20 million to the National Science Foundation for the development of STEM-related learning tools and products that are intended to be disseminated jointly through the nations’ emerging network of virtual schools. Funds would be made available to consortia of virtual schools that apply in partnership with commercial developers of educational products. As an incentive, up to $5M in additional “dissemination” funding for marketing and distribution would be available if the product proves to achieve <g> scores greater than comparable classroom lecture, as measured by NSF’s STEM Test Kitchen.

Congress should make efforts to increase high school students’ access to a wide array of content.

To give students access to courses that are not offered by their own schools, Congress should mandate credit reciprocity across state lines, and between virtual and physical schools, via the Elementary and Secondary Authorization Act. Schools receiving federal funding would have to give their own students graduation credit for courses taken at virtual schools, either in-state or out-of-state, as long as the virtual courses/classes count towards graduation credits in at least one state.

Congress needs to work with State and Local Government to increase the freedom of high school students to pursue depth.

In order to provide students the opportunity to pursue depth in their K-12 studies, states should substantially pare the breadth requirements and mandatory course lists required for high school graduation. Testing a sampling of students on key skills needed, before and after taking specific courses, should indicate the extent to which a course advances a key skill and therefore should be mandated as a graduation requirement. Congress should incentivize the relaxation of science distribution requirements in high schools by tying ESEA funding to the elimination of graduation (or graduation test) criteria in which specific science courses are required by name. Moreover, states should decrease the science courses required for graduation to one, and let that one be of the student’s choosing, while reducing math requirements slightly.

Congress should make efforts to move high schools to competency-based credit systems.

One way to increase the ability of STEM students to pursue their interests more deeply and to better customize learning would be to allow students to more easily test out of classes. One way to do this would be for Congress to tie ESEA funding to states’ adoption of competency-based credit systems. In competency-based credit systems, students receive credit for subject matter learned by taking the end-of-course/end-of-school tests, rather than by spending unneeded seat time in these classes. This option incentivizes student progression through content, opens up time in the curriculum for “in-depth” studies, and helps to retain the brightest high school students, many of whom are bored with the slow pace of seat-time-based instruction. In concert with competency-based credit, school-district funding authorities should adopt competency-based funding models where funding to schools is granted, not on a seat time/attendance-based formula, but on successful course credit units completed by students.

The Department of Education should shift high schools to skills-based learning.

Currently, high schools are focused on teaching content (e.g., history, geography, English literature) and not skills (e.g., reading for information, locating information, and applied mathematics). This is reinforced by accountability measures based on content-based tests. Skills-based assessments should replace the NAEP and NCLB subject-matter-based tests for high schoolers. The Department of Education should then develop a plan by which focus on these testable skills would phase in over five years to replace the current subject-area curricular emphasis.

Federal Departments and Organizations should work together in developing a “Your Ph.D. is Free” awareness campaign.

Ph.D. support mechanisms will have little effect on students’ career decisions if students are not aware of these mechanisms. NSF, NASA, DOD, DHS and other agencies that provide Ph.D. fellowships, scholarships and/or assistantships to STEM students should conduct a joint market survey of currently enrolled B.S. students to determine whether students are even aware of these opportunities. If the awareness is low, a marketing plan should be developed to increase awareness (to at least 70 percent of the B.S. STEM student population) of the near-universality of financial support for Ph.D. study.