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We Can’t All Be Scientists, But We Can Learn to Reason Like Them

Welcome to our new STEAM series. For the next two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. First up, the value of science literacy.

Science is used for curing diseases, taking photos of Pluto, and expanding the horizons of humankind. “Science” is also used for touting the dubious benefits of butter coffee, pomegranate juice and magnetic wristbands.

Building scientific literacy skills, experts say, can help shield people from suspect claims like these and inform us more deeply about key issues affecting our world. It’s why when we talk about the S in STEAM, educators should emphasize these skills alongside more traditional scientific learning.

To be clear, science literacy doesn’t mean a textbook knowledge of science facts like the periodic table. Scientific literacy is a knowledge foundation of concepts and processes that help people make decisions and analyze and evaluate what they read or hear—whether the topic is genetically modified food or climate change.

Instead of teaching kids how long it takes for light from the sun to reach earth, the better question is how scientists figured it out. Or why they figured it out.

“The types of questions in science literacy tests don’t reflect the kinds of things real scientists think or care about,” Faye Flam, a science journalist and author, wrote last month in Forbes. Her piece attacked an article in TIME that painted science literacy as knowledge of specific facts like the chemical makeup of Mars. “Science literacy tests make science out to be a set of dry, disconnected facts—and yet it is the connections that make science so interesting,” she added.

Flam writes that instead of teaching kids how long it takes for light from the sun to reach earth, the better question is how scientists figured it out. Or why they figured it out. Those questions require deeper exploration and questioning, and can nurture a sense of curiosity about the scientific world.

How to get there? Educators in Pittsburgh are introducing kids to scientific thinking and questioning with hands-on learning. For example, at a Citizen Science Lab workshop in early August, students explored how substances like caffeine and sugar affect their own heart rates. The Lab, a project of Duquesne University, hosts afterschool and summer programs that let kids explore scientific concepts. It also hosts adult workshops, like a five-day course introducing people to plant-microbe interactions.

Additionally, 28 STEAM grants, administered by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, are being rolled out in Pittsburgh-area public schools. Mt. Lebanon High School is using its grant to start a “suburban agriculture” cross-curricular project where students will grow, harvest, and prepare organic vegetables while learning the importance of sustainable foods in a suburban area.

Such programs can help ensure that the next generation will narrow the gaps that the Pew Charitable Trusts found between scientists and the average Joe on controversial issues. Only 37 percent of U.S. adults, for example, thought it was safe to eat genetically modified foods; yet among scientists, 88 percent thought GMOs were safe. Similar divides were evident on topics like human evolution (98 percent of scientists believe humans evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of U.S. adults) and climate change.divorce-rate-in-maine_per-capita-consumption-of-margarine-us

Plus, seeing how the scientific process works first-hand can help kids avoid getting duped by inaccurate maps, statistics (divorce rates in Maine correlate with per capita consumption of margarine, for example, but that does not mean they cause each other), and other data-driven claims in our increasingly data-driven lives.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has said, “Science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow’s problems flow.” It is also a route to help today’s kids make much more mundane (but still important) choices about what to eat, buy, and, ultimately, who to vote for.

New Approach Proposed for Science Curriculum

A new curriculum is being written that hopes to improve science education in the United States. The new framework will focus less on memorization of facts and more on critical reasoning with an added focus on engineering. Helen Quinn, who led the 18-member team that worked for over a year devising the framework, described the problem that these revisions aim to resolve: “The failing of U.S. education today [is] that kids are expected to learn a lot of things but not expected to be able to use them.”

According to the committee’s report, the new curriculum will focus on the following areas of science: physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and the applications of science. The report also explains its goals and what it hopes to gain through a revamped curriculum.

“The overarching goal is for all high school graduates to have sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on science-related issues; be careful consumers of scientific and technological information; and have the skills to enter the careers of their choice.”

So far, only the framework has been completed. The task now falls on nonprofit education group, Achieve Inc., to expand the framework into a set of standards. They hope to finish this within the coming year, though it may take several more to complete rewriting lesson plans and text books. While standards and curriculum are changing, core concepts, including evolution, will not change. “What we’re not going to do is compromise the science just to get states comfortable,” Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, told the New York Times. Each state will have the ability to choose whether or not to adopt the new set of standards.

The report adds to a growing number of voices, including those supported by Spark, that is driving toward the creation of a future learning environment that recognizes the value of values hands-on, participatory learning, the doing and the making that characterize so many Spark projects.

Girls Take Top Prize at Google Science Fair

Although women make up nearly half of the world population, their presence in the sciences constitutes a vastly smaller percentage. Today, only twelve percent of engineers are female. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM for short) are all fields in which women are under-represented. This is precisely why this year’s Google Science Fair results are so exciting–all three top prizes were awarded to women.

The winning projects put the classic baking soda volcano to shame. Lauren Hodge, winner of the 13-14 age group, tested a variety of marinades and their effects on the carcinogens typically found in grilled chicken. Her findings showed that lemon juice and brown sugar sharply decreased carcinogen levels, while soy sauce actually increased them.

Naomi Shah, winner of the 15-16 age group, performed a study of 103 adult subjects where she was able to link the increase in two environmental pollutants to decreased lung function and asthma symptoms.

The grand prize was awarded to the winner of the 17-18 age group, Shree Bose of Fort Worth, Texas. Bose’s project focused on the chemotherapy drug cisplatin that is commonly taken by women with ovarian cancer. Bose discovered a protein known as AMPK that, when paired with the drug, stops cancer cells from becoming resistant to its effects. Bose shared her feelings in an interview with ABC:

“That perception that women can’t compete in science has been ingrained in this field for so long. It just shows that our world is changing and women are stepping forward in science, and I’m excited to be a small part of that.”

This year the fair received 7,000 entries from 91 countries. Despite the notion that the US is falling behind in the sciences, 60% of these entries were from Americans, and all three winners are citizens of the US.

Google scientist and fair judge Vinton Cerf told the New York Times that, “a common thread among the finalists was that they had explored science enthusiastically for years with the encouragement of their parents.”

As part of their awards, the winners received internships at Google, Lego, and CERN, ensuring them a good start to what will surely be successful careers in science.