Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Not more scientists, but more science-literate citizens

James Oblinger, the new President of North Carolina State University (promoted from within after many years as the Dean of the School Of Agriculture And Life Sciences), has a good editorial in today's News and Observer:

Nurturing success in the sciences:
We've all heard the line from President Bush: We need more students to join the "nerd patrol." It's an overly simple solution for a complex problem that imperils the traditions of invention and innovation that America prides itself on.
To prepare our students to be successful, high-quality education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is critical. These so-called STEM disciplines are increasingly driving innovation, discovery and economic growth. Some estimates indicate that about one-third of all jobs in the United States require a science or technology competency. The U.S. Department of Commerce projects that science and engineering will be responsible for more than 70 percent of job growth between 2002 and 2012.

Undoubtedly, the focus on problem-solving and critical thinking found in the STEM disciplines serves us well in a variety of fields and in daily life. Basic scientific literacy is necessary to understand many of the complex issues of our day. A solid background in science and math is fundamental to informed participation in modern society and, further, to wise decisions based on sound public policy.
Among other things, we discussed roadblocks to reasserting U.S. competitiveness, including a poll indicating that 70 percent of American parents believe their school-age children are getting the right amounts of science and math. These parents also, the poll suggests, don't believe the jobs of the future will require more proficiency in science and math.

Perception and reality are on a collision course.
I cannot find which poll he is refering to, but I can imagine that there were three answers: a) my child is getting about the right amount of math and science in school; b) too little math and science, or c) too much math and science. I bet that the percentage of respondents answering c) was not zero. Those would be some fundies, I assume, though their children may not be in public schools anyway. But 70% stating that what they get in US public schools is enough?
Perhaps the most basic and most important strategy is to attract more students to these disciplines. To adequately address the issue on a long-term basis, we must improve our outreach to students and support education in STEM disciplines from kindergarten through graduate school. We must help our children become more aware of career choices in these fields and make careers in them more accessible. And we have to seek ways that will ensure success for students when they come to these subjects and college majors.
It is equally important that as we educate tomorrow's science and math teachers, we're prepared to support them throughout their careers by providing continuing education, mentoring opportunities and classroom support.
I bolded that last sentence.

I think what Oblinger is hinting at throughout the article, but an unprepared mind may not understand, is that arguing for stronger science education does not mean more science majors, or more science Masters, or more science PhDs, or more science professors, but instead more science-literate citizens, people who can understand science reporting, people who can find and evaluate scientific information in libraries and online, people who have been trained in the art of critical thinking, people who are well-educated and well-informed participants in the democracy.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 8:23 PM | permalink | (2 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink