A Generation Lags Behind As Science Advances

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In a letter dated Nov. 17, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt posed four questions to Vannevar Bush about the future of American science. The final question was: "Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?"

Bush, the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, responded the following year in the form of a report, Science--The Endless Frontier. His answer to the fourth question was yes, such a program can be developed.

"To be effective, a plan for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth must be built upon the country's existing educational structure and be consonant with its current operations," Bush wrote. "Such a plan must recognize the undoubted fact that there is not an unlimited number of individuals of high ability and must ensure that the relatively few with creative capacity in science will be found early and be helped and encouraged to go on through the years of study required to complete professional and research training."


Evidence that Bush was right--that the talent was and is there--lies in the success of American science. But that very success has engendered a new dilemma. In a society where the discoveries of basic research are swiftly translated into applied science and technology, those who do not have a basic grasp of science may fail to meet the demands placed upon them in their roles as workers and as voters.

"The world of the present decade will use a new language: robotics, CAD, CAM, integrated circuits, and the like," writes Frank Press, chairman of the National Academy of Sciences, in an editorial in Science. "Those who do not understand that language are in for a difficult time."

Had he been able to foresee how the ascent of science would affect society, Bush might have paid more attention to the need to educate students who are not among the "relatively few with creative capacity in science." For today, although the importance of a system to turn those relatively few into scientists remains vital, it is the broader question of educating future citizens that dominates the debate on science education.

The frontiers of science continue to advance before us, and the goal of an enlightened citizenry continues to elude us. The United States now maintains a steady supply of highly qualified, innovative scientists, and an equally reliable supply of citizens who find science incomprehensible, mysterious, and, frequently, threatening.

That U.S. education has not attained the goal of universal scientific literacy is reflected in the statistics that describe the state of science and mathematics education. It is also reflected in the relative scarcity of hard data assessing the level of scientific literacy among Americans. As Paul deHart Hurd, emeritus professor of education at Stanford University, pointed out in a recent interview, if more and better statistics had been kept, the problem would have become apparent years ago.


Although virtually all students emerge from school having learned some science and mathematics, they take far less than many people regard as not only desirable but necessary. Students' scores on standardized tests have dropped steadily over the last 10 years.

"The amount of science that general students study is far too low for the last half of the 20th century," says Glenn Crosby, professor of chemistry and chemical physics at Washington State University. "We are living in a very technological age; we are fast going into a computer economy. People are confronted with momentous decisions every day--nuclear energy, pollution, defense, space shots. The ordinary citizen is bombarded with this. They eventually come face to face with large problems with technological components."

"Generally speaking," says Herbert J. Walberg of the University of Illinois, "our kids do not know enough science; they're fearful of it. Teachers are afraid of it, and they don't know how to teach it well."

The shortage of qualified teachers both compounds and perpetuates the problem. Surveys suggest that many--roughly 50 percent--of those now teaching are underqualified, often teaching under emergency certification rules that allow schools to relax the requirements if no qualified applicants can be found. Between 1970 and 1980, the production of new science teachers by schools of education dropped by 64 percent.

But not all states report that they are unable to find qualified applicants. And not all districts' programs are shaped by the teacher shortage or a lack of interest in the concept of scientific literacy--or both. An affluent suburban school district may offer a wider range of science and math courses taught by more highly qualified teachers than its urban and rural counterparts, and students anxious to impress college admissions officials are likely to exceed the minimum course requirements. Although Scholastic Aptitude Test scores in science have declined overall, they have stayed level for those students who plan to major in science in college.


The tide of interest in the problems that characterize science, mathematics, and technology education has been rising steadily over the last three years, since the Carter Administration warned in a report, "Science and Engineering Education for the 1980's and Beyond," that the nation faced serious problems in scientific and engineering manpower.

But although shortages of scientists and engineers could threaten the U.S.'s ability to compete in the international marketplace, a more serious threat may come from "a lack of general scientific and mathematical literacy: forms of literacy which will be essential if our citizens are to support a technologically advancing economy," says a report issued by the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth of the Education Commission of the States.

Herbert J. Walberg, writing in Daedalus, observes that it is not the dramatic scientific breakthroughs that routinely produce large jumps in economic productivity:

"... [P]rogress comes mainly from adaptation of scientific and technological ideas, some of them quite old; small, incremental improvements in services, manufacturing procedures, and materials; redesign or substitution of activities, components, and products; reductions in costs; steady advances in performance, quality, style, and consumer appeals; and intelligent attention to details by the work force.

"To discover, plan, implement, and measure the results of such changes in traditional or high technology requires manufacturing, service, and sales forces that are knowledgeable and motivated; it requires not necessarily superior scientists, engineers, and managers, but educated workers who are skilled with materials, technology, and quantitative data; who can absorb and propagate applied science; and who can communicate and cooperate with one another for the individual as well as the corporate and national good."

Such scientifically literate workers, others note, may be vital not only for productivity, but for consumption--the informed selection of goods, services, and ideas in the democratic process. In the chemical industry, for example, officials worry that citizens lack enough knowledge to separate the dangerous and harmful from the benign and useful; people's fear of some chemicals, eads them to fear all chemicals and to require unwarranted and expensive regulation of them.

Many people's "knowledge of science and technology is so meager that they cannot even assess [the opinions of] the experts," Mr. Crosby says.

Moreover, today's citizens, although perhaps cognizant of the need to understand how science policy affects their lives, are largely "inattentive" to it, suggests Jon D. Miller, professor of political science at the University of Illinois.

"In 1979, the attentive public for science policy included about 27 million adults, or about 18 percent of the adult population," Mr. Miller writes in Daedalus.

"In the context of the political specialization process, we would not expect a very high rate of scientific literacy in the nonattentive public, and few voters would be expected to make their choices primarily on the basis of scientific or technological issues," Mr. Miller suggests. "Yet in recent years, an increasing number of referenda have concerned issues related to science or technology--nuclear power, laetrile, recombinant DNA facilities, fluoridation--and it is apparent that a substantial majority of the electorate will not be able to make informed judgments on these issues."

The problems afflicting precollege math and science education have begun to touch the colleges, as well. Enrollment in remedial mathematics courses in colleges increased 72 percent between 1975 and 1980, although overall enrollment increased by only 7 percent.


There are dissenters--although they are apparently a minority--from the view that scientific literacy for all is a worthwhile and attainable goal. Morris Shamos, a professor of physics at New York University, argues that it would be more productive in the long run to concentrate on teaching science to those students who are highly motivated, and concentrate on making sure that less interested students learn about technology.

"The struggle for scientific literacy has thus far been lost," Mr. Shamos writes in a paper presented at the 1983 meeting of the National Science Teachers Association. "We have lost it in our schools for a variety of immediate reasons, but ultimately because society generally has not been convinced that being literate in science and technology is important enough to warrant major changes in its educational priorities. Unless society changes its views on the values of science it is unlikely that any efforts to achieve scientific literacy through our schools alone can be successful."

Technology, which by its very nature plays a more visible role in peoples' lives, may become a sufficiently compelling force in society to provide the motivation for learning that science itself has not, according to Mr. Shamos. "It may no longer be a question of whether technological literacy is desirable; such literacy might well be considered essential! Moreover, it is far easier to achieve than scientific literacy."

"Dream if you like about a utopia where all students love science and scientific literacy is universal--but try focusing your dreams into the real world," Mr. Shamos writes. "I think we have a shot at achieving technological literacy--but we are only playing games with scientific literacy."

The federal government, the states, and the schools have all begun to generate initiatives to address the acknowledged deficiencies in the preparation of young Americans for a world dominated by science and technology. But to what extent those initiatives express a clear agreement on definitions and purposes--and thus, to what extent they will "work"--is still under debate in the education and science communities.

Stephen Graubard, editor of Daedalus, defines the issues this way: "If it is unreasonable to aim for anything like universal scientific literacy--defining that term in the simplest way imaginable--it is important to know whether the objective is shunned because it is utopian, because many believe that the nation lacks the human or material resources to achieve such an end, or whether it is simply felt that so bold a purpose is neither economically nor politically necessary. It matters profoundly whether the judgment reflects a hardheaded decision about student capability and teacher availability--about expense more generally--or whether it derives from an unconscious neglect even to consider the possibility of institutionalizing new types of opportunity."--Susan Walton

This report is designed to provide detailed information on the state of science and mathematics education nationwide, including the progress of improvement initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels, and the views of those concerned about situation from a variety of vantage points. "Science and Mathematics Education: Problems and Prospects" is intended to be a resource for educators, public officials, and others seeking to formulate answers to the question: "Where do we go from here?"

Vol. 02, Issue 39

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