An occasional column on developments in what educators call STEM — for science, technology, engineering and math.
Five years ago, President Obama began the Educate to Innovate initiative, a series of private-public partnerships with companies and nonprofits that was intended to get more students fascinated by science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields.
Last month, Mr. Obama hosted his fourth science fair at the White House — four more than any other president has held. “As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as Super Bowl winners,” Mr. Obama said.
The celebration of the best and brightest would inspire other students, the organizers hoped, spurring them to higher achievements.
But that goal has been an elusive one.
In the United States, public education is run at the state and local levels, so any presidential education initiative is inevitably indirect. Even so, the first group of Educate to Innovate programs in 2009 was a hodgepodge.
The makers of “Sesame Street” had already planned a focus on science that year and said that they would also explore how scientists deduce conclusions from observations in their next season. Discovery Communications set aside a commercial-free block of science programming on its Science Channel network.
Time Warner Cable said it would air public service announcements promoting science and math. Technology companies set up a contest for students to write their own video games.
Jack D. Hidary, an entrepreneur in finance and technology, announced National Lab Day, an effort to match teachers with scientists willing to volunteer help with hands-on projects. In the first year, administration officials like Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator, and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, visited schools to take part.
The second year, Mr. Hidary renamed it the National Lab Network to emphasize that the projects lasted more than one day.
Then it faded. Mr. Hidary said the effort has been winding down for the last year and a half. Its Twitter account has been silent for a year. Mr. Hidary nonetheless described the project as a success, a “catalytic initiative” that showed the way for other groups.
By design, the National Lab website made it easy to download curriculum materials and for teachers and scientists to connect, but it did not follow up to see how well everything worked in the classroom.
“We know we had direct influence on thousands and thousands of teachers,” Mr. Hidary said.
Mr. Hidary said he expected real improvements would take longer, and he was right. The scores of American students on the Program of International Student Assessment, last administered in 2012, have not budged much.
Mark S. Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, was not a fan of Educate to Innovate in 2009, and still is not. “From my perspective, this has not gotten a lot of attention,” he said.
Plus, Dr. Schneider said, the STEM jobs challenge is not that the United States lacks academics with science doctorates, but rather that the country needs more people with two-year technical degrees to fill mid-skill positions, like for X-raytechnicians. “It doesn’t seem we have addressed that in any serious way,” he said.
A successor to the National Lab Network is a new organization started last year, US2020, which is aiming to recruit one million volunteer mentors willing to commit to at least 20 hours a year working in the schools.
“We’re looking for sustained efforts,” said Eric Schwarz, executive chairman of the group. He predicted that school days eventually would get longer, and that outsiders might be teaching during many of those hours.
If the White House initiatives have not brought a sea change in science education, they have served to provide focus to those around the country who want to help, Mr. Schwarz said. A group like US2020 might have come along anyway, but it would not have happened so quickly without the White House beating the drum.
“I think the White House has been incredibly helpful by naming this as a priority,” he said. “They’ve helped to get us thinking differently.”