The Why Files The Why Files --

Science Education 101
3 APRIL 2008

Taking Science Seriously
At the office, the voting booth, even the grocery store, we make decisions about science and technology every day. Take, for example, all of the decisions you must make about a simple carrot. Do you buy them conventionally grown or organic? What makes those carrots organic anyway, and why should they cost so much more? Is there any difference between fresh, frozen, and canned carrots, and if so, does it matter to you? Why are carrots good for your eyes? And what about the "paper or plastic" decision at the checkout? Are paper bags really better for the environment than plastic bags?

Listen to our Terry Devitt speak on the NSTA's Lab Out Loud.

How you negotiate these questions is one indication of your scientific literacy. Though eggheads quibble about the definition, Stanford professor Paul Hurd coined the term, so we figure he earned a say here: "Scientific literacy is the competency required for rational thinking about science [and technology] in relation to personal, social, political, economic problems and issues that one is likely to meet throughout life."

Scientific literacy is the competency required for rational thinking about science [and technology] in relation to personal, social, political, economic problems and issues that one is likely to meet throughout life.

Woman in blue jumpsuit stands at head of small classroom, students hunched over projects on desks.
According to a report from Time magazine and the Center on Education Policy, students are only exposed to an average of 15-30 minutes of science per day in school. Museum of Science and Industry

As we increasingly confront decisions about disease, energy, global warming, pollution, food and water (to name a few...), a central goal of science education is to develop scientifically literate citizens. National science education policies suggest that a scientifically literate public is required for democratic processes, personal decision-making, participation in civic and cultural affairs and economic productivity.

So, how are we doing?
Did you have to ask? Science and Engineering Indicators, a comprehensive national survey conducted since 1972, finds gaping holes in Americans' basic scientific knowledge. As Cornelia Dean put it in the New York Times, "fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century."

Ouch. No wonder some people get away with describing evolution through natural selection as a "chance" process, when in fact, it's the ultimate example of design by trial and error.

Two girls wearing safety goggles and latex gloves peer into vials, microscopes and other students seen in background.
Building scientific literacy? Museum of Science and Industry

Adults recently surveyed at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago agreed that they have a poor understanding of science and scientific principles. The survey also revealed that:

Three seated women lean in to watch water fill a clear graduated cylinder on desk cluttered with papers.
Almost all adults surveyed at the museum (94 percent) said more professional development opportunities are needed for teachers. Museum of Science and Industry

Against this ominous backdrop, thousands of science educators descended on Boston last week for the 2008 National Science Teacher Association Conference. We dropped in to revel in massive quantities of freebies the sight of teachers delighting in scientific unknowns, and their genuine determination to figure things out for themselves. (We must have stopped by the BirdSleuth booth a dozen times...)

After observing the enthusiasm and passion for learning among these teachers, we're convinced that the failure to create scientifically literate citizens cannot be blamed on science teachers alone. If Americans recognize that teachers need support and increased funding and attention, maybe, just maybe, we could solve the current crisis in science education (and education in general). You don't have to be an astronomer to be shocked that one person in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth.

The people are crying out for better science education. Educators are ready and willing.

So let's do it.

-Megan Anderson

• American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1989). Project 2061— Science for all Americans. Washington, DC: AAAS.
• American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
• Hurd, P.D. (1998). Scientific literacy; New minds for a changing world. Science Education. Vol. 82, pp. 407-416.
• National Research Council (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
• National Science Foundation (1996). The Learning Curve: What we are discovering about US Science and Mathematics Education. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

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