Back in the 1990s, a group of private and public officials and academics joined forces in support of nationwide science literacy. The benefits of a strong science education were manifold, they said, with important applications in civic life and the workforce.
“In learning science, students describe objects and events, ask questions, acquire knowledge, construct explanations of natural phenomena, test out those explanations in many different ways, and communicate their ideas to others,” wrote the people who eventually developed National Science Education Standards, guidelines for K-12.
The great questions of the future—how to manage and share the world’s natural resources, say—would demand decision-makers with strong scientific training, they said. Even students who weren’t destined for such positions of power would be most successful in any field if they were science-literate.
“The business community needs entry-level workers with the ability to learn, reason, think creatively, make decisions, and solve problems,” the authors wrote.
Sound familiar? Our contemporary calls for learning that breeds innovation and critical thinking echo those of the past.
But in the 21st century, an era of entrepreneurship and global competition, these skills may be even more valuable. For those growing up in an age of melting ice caps and other climate concerns, science education can produce a sense of urgency and curiosity that leads young people to examine their surroundings through a critical lens.
A few years ago, an effort similar to the one in the 1990s yielded the Next Generation Science Standards. Sixteen states have adopted the standards, and most others have expressed interest in them. They urge the teaching of classic science concepts, only with a bit more context—an effort to encourage students to pursue careers in the field. That means teaching underlying ideas that span all science subjects, as well as teaching the practices of scientists and engineers.
“Science literacy” is a broad term, but at its core is inquiry. Students who learn science are encouraged to question how the world works, why natural phenomena occur, and what information is trustworthy. Take the scientific method, that step-by-step process most kids learn around fifth grade. At first glance it is a rote process to be memorized. But it trains young learners to devise questions and make observations, eventually putting informed hypotheses to the test through technical experiments.
The fundamental purposes of science education have not changed much in recent decades. What has changed are the tools available to stoke young people’s curiosity and help them search for answers. Bunsen burners and nature documentaries are now supplemented with uncanny visualizations and robotics kits.
Take Maker Camp, soon to be in its fifth summer. The partnership between Google and Make: magazine leverages video-chat technology to give any teenager with an internet connection a sneak peak into the practices of professional scientists and engineers. One year, participants took a virtual field trip to NASA, where they got to watch a telescope being assembled live.
Elizabeth Babcock, public engagement officer and dean of education at the California Academy of Sciences, has explained that digital technology has become part and parcel of her institution’s science literacy programming. A photosynthesis visualization at the academy brings visitors on a virtual journey through the molecules in a redwood tree. In other cases, digital media initiate genuine engagement, giving learners a more active role in their own science education, Babcock told Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning. After learning about the science and dangers of plastics, teenagers in an academy afterschool program launched a social media campaign to educate their peers.
When employed right, digital tools can support critical inquiry and give students immersive access to the vital issues of the day. That’s been the worthy goal of science education since its start, and one that is all the more urgent today.
Anyone who follows national politics knows that there are big barriers to widespread science literacy. Political and religious interest groups have worked to ban climate change curricula in several states and to prohibit officials from speaking about it publicly. A Yale study found that social consequences of caring about climate change, not a lack of scientific understanding, were the main cause of adults’ apathy about the topic.
That’s particular cause for developing science literacy at a young age. Information saturation, political interests, and societal forces are all at play in the adult world. Before they enter it, young learners need the capacity to parse through information, ask thoughtful questions, and act on the answers.