Vernon Ehlers, scientist, thinker and representative of his home district in Grand Rapids, Michigan for nearly 20 years, was an extraordinary man. Ehlers was a great champion — and architect — of STEM education in our state and our nation at large. His passing in mid-August of this year marks the loss of a wise politician whose deep foundation in the sciences influenced his nearly 20 years of public service at the state and national level.
I had the pleasure of collaborating with Congressman Ehlers during his time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I am one of so many on-the-ground educational leaders working to bring forth the vision that Ehlers himself was so committed to — a robust and dynamic approach to science education in America. I found an ally in Ehlers, and I am grateful to his strategic, well considered leadership and legislation.
Ehlers contributions to the field of STEM education were many, and his ability to connect legislators across the aisle earned respect and support for his work. Ehlers’ advocacy around STEM stretches back to the early years of his public service, and Ehlers himself played an important role in creating the now ubiquitous acronym. “STEM” refers to four academic disciplines that serve as the foundation for many innovative global industries: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM education refers to teaching and learning in these fields and includes educational activities across all grade levels — from preschool to post-doctorate — in both formal and informal settings.
Ehlers has been credited as being a force behind one of the first public uses of the STEM acronym when he created the STEM Education Caucus in 2005. Ehlers, along with colleagues in the field including Judith Ramaley of the National Science Foundation, agreed that the initial acronym, SMET, just plain sounded bad. Ehlers was passionate about altering the course of science education in America, and helped mentor organizations locally in Michigan like Initiative Science, that provide hands-on learning activities for disconnected youth. He always did more than just give lip service to STEM; he helped build a platform around the need for better curriculum and pedagogical approaches to mathematics and the sciences.
In the introduction to a 2000 report on the future of science education, Ehlers was clear-eyed in his assessment of the need for scientific knowledge and the means of getting there via science education: “The majority of jobs in the 21st century will depend on technical and scientific expertise for which our children must be prepared. I believe that science in school must convey excitement. Science curricula should be inquiry-based and involve hands-on experimentation so children can experience the thrill of learning science.”
Today, just 12 years after Ehlers created the caucus, the need for STEM education is recognized globally in schools and professional settings alike. Organizations from General Motors to Microsoft recognize the STEM acronym and have built company-wide initiatives to help prepare students for tomorrow’s workforce. Ehlers, and the bipartisan STEM Education Caucus he founded, has played a significant role in setting the agenda for improving our collective focus on what it means to teach and learn STEM concepts and prepare for meaningful work in STEM industries.
I’m proud to have worked with and for the same cause as Vern Ehlers, and I feel privileged to continue to bring STEM education to schools across Michigan and beyond. Ehlers worked to debunk tired myths about the capacity of women in STEM, and advocated for diversity in the STEM fields. He wanted to see all American students gain access to rigorous, dynamic education in the STEM fields, and he worked across partisan lines to do so. I consider him one of the founders of “STEM” — quite literally — and I know I am in good company when I offer my respect and gratitude for his many contributions to our community, right here in Michigan and beyond.
Andrew Raupp is founder and executive director of STEM.org.