The public is often told that science education in the schools must be strengthened if the country is to maintain and improve its position economically. But while there are plenty of good reasons to improve science education, enhancement of America’s global competitiveness is probably not one of them.
Economic competitiveness is about serving human needs and wants. It is about conceiving, designing, manufacturing, and distributing products or ideas that have direct impact on how people get things done. That is not the central job of science, and claims to the contrary by advocates of science education can be misleading.
True, scientific investigation often turns out to be useful, and many scientists do useful work. But that outcome is incidental to the main purpose of scientific thought. Galileo was interested primarily in learning about motion. The fact that his insights also served to improve the aiming of cannons was a byproduct.
The driving force behind scientific activity is a search for powerful principles with great explanatory power. How is genetic material transmitted? How do galaxies evolve? What are the basic constituents of matter? The pursuit of answers to such questions underlies and dominates the most prestigious research at universities and many government laboratories. Despite the sharp escalation of the costs of these kinds of inquiries in recent years, in fact, they maintain their priority position in scientific research: the genome project, the supercollider, and the Hubble telescope, for example.
It is true that scientists in industry focus much less on the development of new theory than those in universities, but the heart of science, now and historically, lies in the search for fundamental principles. Most importantly, it is the university view of science that continues to have greatest influence on the school curriculum.
There are good and sufficient reasons for improving science education in schools: (1) Students should understand how scientists have altered our view of the physical and biological universe over the centuries; scientific thought is one of the prime achievements of human minds--comparable to great accomplishments in literature and the arts. (2) Taught well, a strong program of science education provides background for intelligent participation in a democratic system, wherein the public has strong influence on an increasing number of policy issues with scientific content. Should we permit oil drilling off the coast? What about saving various endangered species? How much should the country invest in space exploration, and what are the best methods? The answers do not reside solely in science, but scientific information is relevant, and an informed citizenry should know how to use it. (3) There is a science component in many personal decisions that children face: whether or not to experiment with drugs, how to come to grips with one’s sexuality, how seriously to take regulations for driving automobiles. Again, science does not have all the answers, but knowledge of science helps students feel less helpless in the face of otherwise mysterious forces and choices.
However, the argument advanced for increased attention to and appropriations for science education these days seldom (or only marginally) rests on such purposes. Because of public alarm about economic productivity, those who want to strengthen science education make the claim that doing so enhances competitiveness. The contention is rarely examined. More precisely, there is seldom systematic consideration of additional or alternative education policies that hold promise of addressing the question of American economic growth in the schools more directly.
There is an enterprise explicitly directed toward altering the human condition. It is called technology, and its primary purpose is to make our work more efficient, or to provide new and better methods of transportation, or to figure out how people can communicate more rapidly and accurately. If we want to get serious about using the schools as an agent for maintaining and improving the American standard of living, let’s consider placing greater emphasis on technology in schools.
Other countries have decided to do so. Britain introduced a new national curriculum in 1989. In addition to mathematics and science, one of the seven subjects for all students is technology, starting in primary school. The curriculum includes not only the study of how technology operates in our lives, but also engages the children directly in design work. Ten-year-olds, for example, might design a pull-toy for 3-year olds. What makes a good pull-toy? How can we find out? How can it be fabricated? It is obvious that lots of math and science is involved in such an activity. Understandings about motion, and the nature of materials, and leverage, and measurement, and evaluation are integral features of figuring out how to design mechanical objects. The goal, however, is to construct something useful.
One difference between science and technology is that in science one seeks generalizations, the fewer the better. Part of the beauty of science is to comprehend the ubiquitousness and applicability of its fundamental insights. Newton’s Three Laws are eminently serviceable in thousands of contexts; therein lies their elegance and power.
In technology, on the other hand, there are often dozens of answers to a given problem. There is no one best pull-toy for toddlers, or stage set for a school production, or reading light for the bedroom, or baby’s feeding chair, or ventilation for a greenhouse, or method of distributing newspapers.
In the new British curriculum (from which the examples above are drawn) students at all levels are asked to examine a range of contexts--home, school, community, business--to identify human needs and opportunities. They are then encouraged to generate a design proposal. (In this connection, they may build a model or make a drawing.) They then implement their ideas through measurement, construction,her appropriate methods. Finally, they evaluate their work and act on the basis of their appraisal.
The type of thinking encouraged by technology emphasizes variety and a certain divergence in intellectual effort. It is a type of thought and action seldom fostered in schools, yet it may have more to do with economic well-being than the subjects that currently dominate the curriculum. Technology, with its persistent focus on the relationship between mind and hand--with its insistence on practical work--seems closer than other subjects, including science, to the knowledge and skills necessary to improve the country’s commerce and industry.
But even if it weren’t--even if there were not a robust link between a well-crafted technology curriculum and the country’s economic well-being--a solid case could be made that technology should be included in elementary and secondary schools because the knowledge it embodies is important in its own right. Practical reasoning is a universal, productive, and distinctive human activity. Emphasizing it may have the desirable effect of helping students see clearer connections between the activities they are made to do in school and the issues that make a difference in their own lives.
The United States took a stab at a secondary-school curriculum in technology 25 years ago. It was called (in a less gender-sensitive decade) The Man-Made World, and emphasized engineering concepts. Though it did not feature design, it was innovative and far-reaching. High-school students learned about optimization, modeling, systems, and feedback. The program, however, was used in only a small number of schools, partly because there was little room in high schools for another subject and partly because university scientists were involved in school reform much more than scientists from industry.
Before deciding on the specific approaches that might work best in introducing technology to the curriculum, however, we have first to decide whether or not we want to do so. If the public places priority on the use of schools to enhance economic competitiveness, then a direction like the one outlined here might well become part of the strategy. Not to do so, to emphasize primarily science, however strong that program turns out to be, risks misleading the public by making exaggerated and implausible claims for the ways in which larger public investments in education will pay off.