National Lab Day: Modeling Large-Scale Public-Private Partnership in Support of Presidential Priorities

National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy

Coalition to Engage Scientists and Engineers in Science Education

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The Challenge

Our nation’s ability to solve its most challenging societal problems, as well as our future economic well-being and national security, all depend on how we educate our students today. As President Obama has noted, “the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” This is especially true in math, science, technology, and engineering (STEM) – fields that for decades have reliably produced so many of our innovators and innovations. Yet there are signs that we are being out-taught in these areas:  in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test of 15 year olds from 55 countries, U.S. students ranked 36th in science and 35th in math proficiency. While we have many great schools, excellent teachers, and successful students, too many other students are not getting the opportunities they need to succeed.  

Our schools and teachers could use the help of STEM professionals, and many of those professionals are eager step in, but it has been difficult to make connections. Teachers do not always know how to locate a scientist or engineer willing to partner with them. Professionals do not always know who to contact or how to help. 

A Solution

In order to further the presidential objective of improving math and science education in America, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy are together providing support, expertise, and materials in a public-private partnership that will connect volunteer professionals—including agency scientists—with teachers to bring more high-quality, hands-on, and discovery-based lab experiences to students in America’s middle- and high-schools. Teachers and schools will set the agendas for their own classrooms; following their lead, professionals and community volunteers will volunteer their expertise and talents to improve STEM education for our students. State-of-the-art social networking technologies will link teachers, volunteers, and resources in support of local schools.

National Lab Day draws on the strengths of multiple partners to do something that that none could do alone. The American Chemical Society and the National Science Teacher’s Association are leading the effort, which includes more than 200 professional societies that have committed to educate their members about the issues and encourage them to participate. Foundations – Hidary, MacArthur, and Bill and Melinda Gates – are joining with industry partners to finance the effort.

Instead of trying to address the problem by themselves, the agencies–with White House support–worked together with myriad partners to bring about a nationwide initiative. They participated in numerous planning meetings, lent the expertise and know-how of key agency professionals,  helped broker connections to professional societies, and acted as neutral, transparent, and independent conveners. They reviewed and commented on the social networking platform as it was being developed and provided feedback to the foundations creating the website.  All in all, however, the manpower of only a few agency officials over a limited period of time was needed to create the “glue” that helped this grassroots collaborative effort to cohere.

The Benefit

The National Lab Day initiative is a cost-effective way to effect locally-driven changes that will improve education for countless students. It will raise awareness of the need for better science and math education. It will assist a ready and willing cadre of teachers, scientists, engineers, and other volunteers to partner in helping to achieve the President’s goals of improving STEM education so that all students have the opportunity to learn deeply and think critically. And it will help bring to fruition the President’s stated goal of moving American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade while expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and girls.

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