Computer science is a fundamental skill in the modern economy, President Obama declared on Tuesday as the White House announced a series of initiatives aimed at advancing education in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
That includes a $200 million investment from Oracle to extend computer science education to 125,000 U.S. students, along with a host of commitments from federal agencies, schools and other groups to promote STEM training.
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In remarks at the sixth annual White House science fair, Obama touted the efforts his administration has made to expand STEM education, and called on schools and businesses to encourage students "to actively engage and pursue science and push the boundaries of what's possible."
Reading, writing, arithmetic and computer science
"And that's why we're building on our efforts to bring hands-on computer science learning, for example, to all students," Obama said. "As I've said before, in the new economy, computer science isn't optional -- it's a basic skill, along with the three Rs."
Obama also called attention to the low rates of participation among women and minorities in the STEM fields, urging action to counter the "structural biases" within the STEM fields that have made those subjects feel like hostile ground for some students.
"We want to make sure every single one of our students -- no matter where they're from, what income their parents bring in, regardless of their backgrounds -- we want to make sure that they've got access to hands-on [STEM] education that's going to set them up for success and keep our nation competitive in the 21st century," Obama said. "But the fact is, is that we've got to get more of our young women and minorities into science and technology, engineering and math and computer science."
"[W]e're not going to succeed if we got half the team on the bench, especially when it's the smarter half of the team," he added to laughter from the audience, though it was plain that he was serious about the point.
As part of the administration's STEM push, the Education Department is issuing guidance to states, districts and individual schools to help secure federal grant funding to improve instruction in technical fields, including computer science.
In addition to Oracle's pledge of funding for computer science programs, more than 500 schools have committed to broadening access to computer science education, thanks in part to support from Code.org, a nonprofit group promoting education in the field.
Another nonprofit group, US2020, is supporting a new online program to help STEM workers find volunteer and mentor opportunities.
The White House announced a host of other initiatives to promote STEM education from federal agencies, schools and private-sector groups.
Before delivering his remarks in the White House East Room, Obama made the rounds at the science fair, chatting with several of the student teams about their projects. In the course of those conversations, he asked each of the students how they became interested in science. Their responses, he said, made a powerful argument for promoting STEM education from the earliest stages of school.
"[T]here were a couple whose parents were in the sciences, but for the majority of them, there was a teacher, a mentor, a program -- something that just got them hooked," Obama said. "And it's a reminder that science is not something that is out of reach, it's not just for the few, it's for the many, as long as it's something that we're weaving into our curriculum and it’s something that we're valuing as a society."