Chancellor: Universities play key role in strengthening science, math education in the U.S.

Universities, along with government and other partners, play a vital role in making sure that the budding young scientists, engineers, tech whizzes and mathematicians necessary to keep the United States economically competitive have teachers educate and inspire them, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau told a Brookings Institution audience in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Chancellor Birgeneau at Brookings Institution

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau discusses the challenge of science and math education at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Innovation on Monday. (Chris Harrington photo)

Appearing as part of a panel discussion on the United States’ need to strengthen its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, Birgeneau laid out for a national audience the ways in which Berkeley is doing its part to help develop a supply of well-trained science and math teachers for K-12.

“UC Berkeley produces a significant number of our nation’s scientists and engineers,” the chancellor said — some 8,000 at any one time.

In the last five years, the campus has launched two innovative programs, Cal Teach and Math for America, Berkeley, to train some of these scientists and engineers for futures as teachers, he said.

Cal Teach, which started in 2006 as part of a UC-wide initiative, brings together the university, K-12 schools, government and industry leaders to encourage science, math and engineering students to consider teaching as a career and to help them develop strong teaching skills, Birgeneau related. Students are allowed to combine an undergraduate major in physics, for example, with a teaching- credential program.

“This fall, there are 190 students enrolled in Cal Teach courses,” he said. “Before we created Cal Teach, only five or six Berkeley students were going into teaching in STEM fields. This is radical change.”

Just starting up this fall is Math for America, Berkeley, which has brought six Master Teacher Fellows to the campus this semester, and funds are being raised to expand the program, Birgeneau said.

At Berkeley, both programs are consonant with the campus’s public mission, because they focus on “high-needs, primarily inner-city schools,” the chancellor said.

Both programs currently depend on philanthropic funding, a condition Birgeneau called unsustainable. Robust government support is needed, he added.

“Our nation’s future competitiveness relies on our success,” he concluded.

The United States has fallen behind its competitors in math and science education, and the panel, convened by Brookings’ Center for Innovation, gathered experts working to turn the tide.

Among those appearing with Birgeneau were Math for America founder James Simons, MIT President Susan Hockfield, Bart Gordon, chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, and Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. The discussion, webcast live, was moderated by E.J. Dionne, a Brookings senior fellow and Washington Post columnist.

The context for Monday’s discussion was the impending release of a highly anticipated report by the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, expected later this fall. Lander said the report would urge an ambitious national agenda.

Videos of the discussion and more information are available at the Brookings website.