New National Academies Report calls Science as important as Reading or Math

July 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm 4 comments

Interesting new report, which I think is probably more controversial than we might think.  The National Research Council is now saying science education is as important as reading and mathematics.  I don’t think that most people in the US will buy that. C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures are still alive and well.  There is a strong distrust of science in US society, as pointed out in the book Denialism:  Don’t get vaccines because they might cause illness; evolution is still an unproven theory; and humans are not having any impact on the environment.  I live in the South, where I heard a radio talk show just this last week about how the US “stifles” classroom teaching on creationism, and how other “more free-minded” nations (South Korea was mentioned by name) allow for classroom discussion that is critical of the “so-called science of evolution.”

Yes, we need more science education, but the adults that believe anti-science rhetoric are unlikely to agree that science is as important as reading or math.  Is this one of the barriers preventing CS education from taking hold in the US, that the anti-science bias extends to computer science?

State, national, and local policymakers should elevate science education in grades K-12 to the same level of importance as reading and mathematics, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report recommends ways that leaders at all levels can improve K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The report responds to a request from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) for the National Science Foundation — which sponsored the Research Council report — to identify highly successful K-12 schools and programs in STEM fields.

“A growing number of jobs — not just those in professional science — require knowledge of STEM fields,” said Adam Gamoran, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor of sociology and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “The goal isn’t only to have a capable and competitive work force. We need to help all students become scientifically literate because citizens are increasingly facing decisions related to science and technology — whether it’s understanding a medical diagnosis or weighing competing claims about the environment.”

via Report Recommends Ways to Improve K-12 STEM Education, Calls on Policymakers
To Raise Science Education to Same Level of Importance as Math and Reading

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Bogost  |  July 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Isn’t all this moot given how terrible US primary and secondary education is overall, in any subject?

  • 2. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I think you’ll find general agreement that science is as important as math, since many of the anti-science crowd are also math-phobic.

    Actually, the biggest pushback will come from your close colleagues in math and theoretical computer science, who regard math as pure and sacred, while science is somehow dirty.

  • 3. BKM  |  July 13, 2011 at 8:52 am

    I disgree. The people who are anti-science tend to be religious conservatives. They mainly have problems with particular areas of science, not the whole thing. Many like math quite a bit, although they tend to prefer more traditional ways of teaching math. You can find a lot of this among homeschoolers.

  • 4. Mark Miller  |  July 14, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    I remember Alan Kay paraphrasing Neil Postman 14 years ago, saying, “[Most people] have to take more things on faith now in the 20th century than they did in the Middle Ages. There’s more knowledge that most people have to believe in dogmatically or be confused about.” He was describing the effect of bringing science and technology into our society, and how most people view it.

    I don’t know if it’s just the way you phrased what Michael Specter said, but it seems to me what ails the faith (as in, trust and confidence) in science as a discipline, not merely as a knowledge base, is the way it’s presented in schools, and this is reflected in the way I see Specter’s argument being portrayed here. Preferred models that have been derived through scientific processes are presented as ones that we should have faith (belief) in, such as evolution. What I used to see (in hindsight) in the pedagogy of science instruction was a combination of literature, arithmetic, and inductive logic, which is a pretty far cry from what modern scientific practice and thinking actually is. The dynamic that gets set up by this can be one faith vs. another, and it can literally become a religious battle on both sides. This is a flaw in the way science is presented. Science is not about belief, and it’s a misconstruction to present it as such, yet it often is. I suspect this is a major reason for the distrust that’s seen in many populations towards science, not to mention the occasional disasters that occur as a by-product of our scientific and technological development, which become prominent in people’s minds through a psychology of fascination with watching a train wreck, and then being horrified by it. This ignores the majority of cases where science has allowed us to live a better life.

    I got into a debate a few years ago with Bill Kerr, who was a high school science teacher in Australia (he used to visit here), over the issue of how to present evolution vs. intelligent design theory. I was in favor of excluding ID completely, because I thought it was allowing non-scientific thought to enter a science class. I realized later after talking to a couple science professors that it was actually valuable to allow questions about evolution to come up, and to allow discussion of ID, because students of science need to maintain their curiosity, and need to develop their ability to question and discuss what they think they know. These are elements of scientific thinking. It’s alright if they come in with some non-scientific beliefs. The big thing is they need to be able to test their ideas, measure, examine what they saw as a result, and then try to model what they saw. In other words, it really doesn’t matter what we think about what Nature is doing, whether the belief is that evolution is happening, or creatures are created. What science asks us to do is observe the phenomenon itself, use some techniques to try to get past our beliefs, and try to see it for what it really is.

    Scientists for hundreds of years have been religious people. Their motivation was “to know the mind of God.” Even so, they were afraid to discuss some of what they had found, or got in trouble for contradicting religious orthodoxy. The goals of religion and science did not conflict in their mind, however, though particularly with the theory of evolution, they have.

    I realize I talked a lot about evolution, but this applies to the other issues as well: vaccines, and the extent of our impact on the environment.


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