Monday, February 13, 2012

Science Literacy in the 21st Century

Recent polls on American competitiveness foretell of a future America losing its position as a global leader in scientific research and development, and in its production of science and engineering graduates. This should be no surprise.  Nearly 20% of people polled feel that science classes were irrelevant to students not pursuing science as a career, and more than 50% avoiding science as a career because they felt it would be too difficult or uninteresting. Is there a relationship between the failure of science education to capture our collective imagination and sense of wonder, and our loss of global competitiveness? If so, does it mean that imbibing students with a dose of scientific literacy will positively impact our social science-collective and affect our global competitiveness? Are the two even related?

I am skeptical of aspirations of science literacy. I don’t believe our decision makers, media and businesses want a scientifically literate populous. The benefits from a science-illiterate populous are too great. When opposing political talking heads present conflicting sides of a scientific argument—global warming for example—a scientifically-literate populous would never tolerate the charade of “equal weight”. Consider the recent eye-health vitamins offered by Bausch & Lomb. They have decided that independent, scientific support for the purported claims of their product is no longer necessary. They have weighed short-term corporate profit against the potential long-term damaged from a loss of scientific credibility and decided it’s worth the gamble.

Which specific science literacy would empower the average American consumer to properly evaluate the specious claims made about Omega-3, Lutein and eye-health? What is eye-health anyway?

This issue is not science literacy but rather science appreciation. We need to change the American consciousness towards a greater appreciation for the creativity of science, the artistry of its craftspeople and the fruits of their labor. An appreciation for science would raise the admiration for the efforts of our best and brightest in their field and envelope them with a greater sense of public trust. Science appreciation would oblige science for input on issue of public importance, because we would anxiously want to here what they had to say.

Raising the American conciseness towards a greater appreciation of science will not be accomplished via an endeavor to infuse a prescribed level of science literacy. It is disingenuous to suggest the only way to appreciate Michelangelo’s David is to learn how to sculpt, or the only way to be a true soccer fan is to have played the game. A National science literacy is no more important to the appreciation or quality of science than a National music literacy is to the appreciation or quality of music. There will always be talented musicians to produce beautiful music for the rest of us to enjoy and admire.

How do we introduce today’s students to a love and appreciation of science? We can look to the American love affair with professional sports and athletes for a possible route to that appreciation.

The National Football League currently enjoys a fan-base of 75 million in the United States though a small number of these fans ever played the game. They developed their love and appreciation for the sport without ever participating in it. A lack of hands-on experience did not preclude them from enjoying the game or admiring the players and coaches. How did this happen?

Imagine that high school sports programs were administered like our National science programs, with mandatory participation for all students, no tryouts and no cuts. All players would be required to study and learn how to play all team positions. Each component of the game would be coached in a prescribed sequence, (three weeks on defense and four on strategy). Proficiency would be assessed by a variety of methods (written exams, small group projects, or a creative multi-media presentation). Any failure to become proficient at a position would be interpreted as a failure of the coach, not a limitation of the player. Finally, each coach would conduct their program for approximately 100 players every year, and work alone.

In this scenario, football would quickly lose its current status as the top sport in interscholastic competition. Colleges would stop spending time and money scouting and recruiting. The local media would stop covering their hometown players and season exploits. There would be no homecoming parade, no pep-rally. Most important, players with the most potential would lose interest in the sport. Players with the least potential would think the effort to learn and participate, a waste of their time. The coaches would lose their “love of the game”, grow disillusioned and become frustrated. Football would loose its base of appreciative fans.

Now imagine the reverse; administering National science programs within the current framework of high school sports programs. There would be recruitment and tryouts for only the best students, with most students not making the cut. Students would be matched to various disciplines based on their specific proficiencies. Students would participate in interscholastic competitions, complete with local media coverage of the local “rising star”, and a homecoming parade with a pep-rally. What do you believe would happen to the quality of our science programs? Would we create appreciative fans?

Some may argue that this critique is unfair, that high schools do require mandatory participation in team sports, in their physical education programs, or that high schools do offer science competitions for the best and brightest in their after school programs, such as the national Science Olympiad. But these science programs don’t have the same stature as sports programs. They do not enjoy the same budget. Does anyone really expect dodge ball in gym class to produce the next great athlete, or adoring fans?

If we are to raise the status of science, to encourage students to challenge themselves and the limits of our understanding, and to make attractive the notion of public adoration and trust, then our National agenda must be to foster a new love of science, and admiration for scientists. They must be our superstars, chased by the paparazzi, and sought after for TV appearances. We must all desire to see the view from the shoulders of giants, and appreciate its beauty, even if we do not understand what we are looking at.

Copyright 2012 theBIOguy


  1. Anonymous2:30 PM

    The difference of course, is that you can learn the fundamentals of the entirety of football in a day or two.

    1. The same holds true for science. At it's core, it is a simple process of evidence based inquiry. Even infants are shown to hypothesis test to learn about their world. The fundamentals of science take less than a day to learn. New inductees find discovery fun (just ask an elementary school kid). However, the emphasis quickly turns to the mastery. The expectation of proficiency by everyone is what drives our curriculum. No such expectation exists for sports because only the best survive. Imagine what a football class would look like if all students were required to take it and the expectation was proficiency for all. High School football would disappear overnight. on Science Literacy in the 21st Century