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Senator Shaheen proposes new federal grants to support sci-tech programs

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire teamed up with inventor Dean Kamen this morning to unveil a new bill she hopes will funnel new federal funding to extra-curricular educational programs focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway and various medical devices, started such a program in 1989, Manchester-based FIRST, that operates robotics competitions for more than 250,000 kids each year.

Shaheen's bill would create a competitive grant program, called the Innovation Inspiration School Grant Program, that would help fund programs like FIRST. "The vision is to look at some of the things that are working to get kids excited about STEM subjects," Shaheen told me in a phone interview just after this morning's announcement. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.) "That leads to more people going into those fields and it will help keep the country competitive." The grant program will give top priority to schools in low income urban and rural areas, she said, and will require members of the community to be involved in the programs as mentors (as they are with the FIRST robotics program). Grant applicants will also need to find their own funding to match the federal contribution, 50-50.

When I asked what dollar amount would be necessary to really move the needle - $50 million in grants annually, $100 million? - Shaheen didn't want to get specific. "If we did that, some people would see it as too little, and some as too much," she said. The grant program could get included as the Senate deals with re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year, commonly known as "No Child Left Behind."

Kamen maintains tight relationships with just about every elected official in New Hampshire (former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu was once an employee of his), and many of the Presidential candidates who traipse through the state every four years. "I got to know Dean when I was governor," Shaheen said. "He's working on so many things that are important to New Hampshire, like FIRST and DEKA and Segway. And he's creating great jobs in the state."

Among the new bill's co-sponsors are Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and Harry Reid of Nevada. Shaheen says that she and Kamen are still reaching out to others.

According to the press release announcing the bill this morning, "STEM-related fields are expected to be the fastest growing occupations of the next decade, however not enough students in the United States are pursuing an education in STEM fields to keep up with the increase in demand in the workforce."