The U.S. educational system is a complex structure consisting of many interrelated systems. Under the Constitution, it is the individual state governments, not the federal government that are responsible for K-12 public education (since it is not specified as a federal responsibility). The role that individual states play in governing education varies, with some states giving greater responsibility to county or local governments or both. That state and local responsibility is reflected in the funding for K-12 public school education: in 2005 about 90 percent of the total $536 billion spent on K-12 education came from state and local governments; only about 10 percent came from the federal government (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).
The involvement of the federal government in K-12 STEM education is relatively recent, dating back only to the mid-20th century. The federal government currently sets the national agenda in K-12 STEM education through two processes. First, it passes legislation that affects federal funding, which can lead to changes in state and local education systems. For example, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, its reauthorization under the No Child Left Behind Act, implemented by the Department of Education, have had significant effects on K-12 STEM education. Second, Congress provides funding for federal agencies involved in K-12 STEM education, which influences the types of K-12 STEM education programs that are developed and supported by federal agencies.
Even though the influence of the federal government on education has grown, its authority over K-12 public education remains limited. The federal government does not set a national curriculum or mandate state or local participation in federal programs. States can refuse to participate in any federal education program (forgoing its associated funds). Yet however small the amounts of funding might be, the opportunity to receive federal financial support can influence the direction science education takes.
Many federal agencies, including the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Transportation, as well as NASA, fund K-12 STEM education programs and research.2 These agencies share their expertise in science and science education through their involvement in education programs for students and teachers at the K-12 level. They develop programs that provide opportunities for learners to understand the nature of science, and they provide scientific knowledge, theory, and practice to educational institutions, both formal and informal,