OBSSR Hosts Workshop On Behavioral and Social Sciences and STEM Education

The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) brought together representatives from the White House Domestic Policy Council, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Sciences Foundation, NIH, scientific and education communities, and scientific societies to discuss the Administration’s priorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education and the status of the behavioral and social sciences within STEM education (see workshop agenda).

Despite federal investments in these sciences, the behavioral and social sciences remain largely invisible in discussions of STEM and STEM education. To explore this issue and identify important research questions in this area, OBSSR held a workshop on July 13, 2010. NIH itself provides about $3 billion annually to scientists to address behavioral and social science issues related to health, according to reports to Congress.

Federal representatives kicked off the day by describing the Administration’s efforts to reform education. According to Steve Robinson with the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Administration’s goal is to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020 (see Robinson’s presentation, PDF). The Administration’s FY 2011 budget provides large increases for programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One focus for the Administration is preparing more students for STEM careers, a goal that will enable students to compete in the 21st economy and help the U.S. maintain its international leadership position in science.

Michael Lach, Special Assistant for STEM Education at the U.S. Department of Education, described the hurdles faced in changing curriculums, adding that the curriculums are seen as a “mile wide and an inch deep.” Participants discussed how to introduce learners to a range of sciences, including the behavioral and social sciences, while addressing concerns about adding to the curriculum.

During the workshop, participants also raised concerns that there is an insufficient awareness in the broader scientific community and the general public that science includes social and behavioral phenomena. Felice Levine, Director of the American Educational Research Association, emphasized that public comprehension of the behavioral and social sciences could be vastly improved by inclusion of these sciences in the early stages of learning.

OBSSR plans to post a summary of the meeting on its website in the coming months and may consider new avenues for research to address gaps in the literature. Meanwhile, the behavioral and social sciences community will consider approaches for working with science and education leaders to integrate these sciences into a robust science education curriculum that prepares our youth for future challenges.