Teaching Opinion

The Democratization of Scientific Knowledge

By Dennis M. Bartels — February 05, 2007 5 min read
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Why we should aim for universal technical literacy, not more Ph.D.s.

Not since the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in the 1950s has so much attention been paid to the state of America’s science and technology education system, from elementary to graduate school. Business, academic, and political leaders are united on the need for action. Among the recent clarion calls, perhaps none is as well cited as the National Academies’ report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” and none more persuasive than Thomas L. Friedman’s best-selling book, The World Is Flat.

—Brian Jensen


As a science educator, I am pleased by this renewed emphasis. But it also raises questions. In a year when annual science testing will become mandatory under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, I wonder whether we are pursuing the solutions that will enable all our students to compete on a level global playing field.

We have framed the problem almost exclusively in terms of producing more scientists and engineers, practitioners at the highest levels. This raises, for me, two main fears: that we will return to Sputnik-era solutions and fail to take advantage of the accumulated wisdom of the past 50 years, and that we will focus on immediate but short-lived solutions.

If our goals are to avoid job losses to other countries and produce the largest number of Ph.D.s, we are entering an impossible race. Simple mathematics tells us that we won’t win by the numbers when our population is one-third that of India and one-fourth that of China. And economic theory tells us that wage pressures on international corporations are simply too great.

Strategies to encourage the production of Ph.D.s, such as loan forgiveness and scholarship programs for our most accomplished students, also have problems. Cost-effectiveness studies show that their impact on the numbers of students who enroll in these areas is marginal at best. Many of the scholarships, as it turns out, go to people already headed into these careers. So it’s hard to determine how many of them would have changed their minds or failed to persist without such incentives. Research suggests that the figure may be less than 50 percent, and perhaps as low as 20 percent. Given these programs’ significant costs, they represent some of the most expensive solutions per scientist or teacher gained, when compared with other programs or approaches.

Allow me to suggest an alternative. The country’s primary goal should be to train the majority of its citizens to be technically competent. Technical competency—being familiar with and able to use the critical analytical skills of mathematics and science—is the key to the creation of jobs. These are not jobs that require terminal degrees; they are for the entrepreneurs, biotechnology-lab technicians, plant engineers, medical workers, traders, and even politicians of the future. Our most powerful asset as a nation is that we have tried for many years to educate every student in mathematics and science, and have learned much from that experience—even in our failures.

Any recommendations to improve science and math education must reach deep inside every K-12 classroom. If we cannot change the fundamental experiences of teachers in teaching and students in learning science and mathematics, why should we expect that any more than 20 percent of our students would persist in these courses through the senior year in high school—or that any more than a small fraction of these would pursue graduate degrees in these fields?

Our country can be said to produce the best basketball players in the world; Italy and Brazil, the best soccer players; Finland, an extraordinary number of world-class musicians. In every case, we find children in these nations encouraged at the youngest ages to take part in these activities, even if they are not expected to be world-class professionals as adults. It is this universal participation that leads to the deepest and widest development of talent, and the strongest base for excellence.

The early fostering of interests, skills, and talents in our young is the key to excellence. That is why we must invest for the long term, in the earliest grades, and not necessarily worry about the number of scientists and engineers at the moment. If we focus on the total population, the scientist and engineer problem will solve itself. And we will have so much more in terms of technical literacy across all job categories.

Where would I invest the $10 billion to $20 billion more per year that some politicians have suggested is a possibility? My top five recommendations include the following:

1. Provide an intensive, two-year teacher-induction program that compares favorably with the best medical-residency programs for every teacher of mathematics and science, so that they not only stay in the profession, but also learn how to become competent, confident, and successful teachers as quickly as possible. This is the most cost-effective way to address national concerns about teacher quality.

Any recommendations to improve science and math education must reach deep inside every K-12 classroom.

2. Bring the same amount of attention, experimentation, and investment to community- and technical-college education as exists for K-12 and traditional four-year colleges. This is especially important because many teachers start their collegiate education in two-year institutions, and also because developmental-math courses have proved to be the second-greatest gatekeeper to technical careers (high school algebra being the first).

3. Invest seriously in the emerging revolution in the learning sciences and in places designed to translate that knowledge into curricula, diagnostic assessments, innovative programs, and other resources that will work for ordinary teachers and students.

4. Consistently stimulate instructional experimentation to find better ways of learning through curricula, so that new innovations are constantly tested, improved, abandoned, or moved into commercial or public markets.

5. Use and support the informal education sector—museums, media, and after-school programs—to motivate children and adults to engage in everyday questions about the natural and man-made worlds.

Universal scientific and technical literacy is as important for our democracy as it is for our economy. The democratization of scientific knowledge must remain the highest goal in funding and setting priorities for our schools. I say this as the director of San Francisco’s Exploratorium, an informal science education institution founded in 1969 by the noted physicist and educator Frank Oppenheimer. It is an institution based on the belief that knowledge about science and technology is far too important to a modern democracy to leave in the hands of the few—the sort of place that Ann Druyan, the collaborator and wife of the late Carl Sagan, had in mind when she defined scientific literacy as equipping every man, woman, and child with a giant “baloney detector,” so they would not fall for every claim made by someone attempting to manipulate or fool them. With the amazing pace of change today, broadening the reach and enhancing the understanding of scientific knowledge must remain at the very top of the nation’s agenda.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as The Democratization Of Scientific Knowledge

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