Science - the only frontier

January 22, 1999

Former astronaut George 'Pinky' Nelson charts a cure forscience illiteracy in the US and beyond.

While scientific knowledge is growing at a breathtaking pace, science literacy is not. In fact, there is a cycle of scientific illiteracy running through the education system that perpetuates widespread ignorance of the facts, principles and applications of science.

Our own research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) finds that most undergraduates' knowledge of science is at about the level expected of sixth to eighth graders (12 to 14-year-olds).

Look at the front page or employment section of a newspaper, or at the Stock Exchange listings, or glance under the hood of a new car to convince yourself that scientific literacy will not be merely an option in the 21st century. It will be a ticket to participate in the economic, political and cultural life of our society.

But poor curricula and instructional practices in elementary, middle and secondary schools produce students who lack even basic science knowledge and skills. Similar problems at universities and colleges, where students fulfil only meagre science requirements, result in teachers who remain scientifically illiterate or unable to teach effectively. As these teachers populate the schools, the cycle continues.

There are promising efforts under way at primary and secondary education level to break the science illiteracy cycle. Setting specific core learning goals for all students is a start. Aligning textbooks, instruction, and assessment to the learning goals is another step. There are some excellent new mathematics texts available.

To be used successfully, these new materials rely on teachers who have a deep understanding of their subject. Professional development for teachers is improving in quality. Some districts are exploring the possibility of designing a coherent 13-year curriculum that will result in science literacy for almost all students. Businesses and communities are joining the changes.

Higher education must join the effort by beginning its own systematic reform. It could take the first step by producing teachers who are literate in mathematics and science and who know how to teach students to understand. This is a big task that involves honest self-assessment, acknowledgement of current realities and cooperation between schools of education and arts and sciences.

One way to start is to set an intermediate, say five-year, goal that every college graduate will demonstrate achievement of at least the core science literacy prescribed for all high school graduates. In mathematics that would mean meeting the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' standards, and in science either the AAAS's benchmarks for science literacy or the National Research Council's national science education standards. This would mean radical reform of traditional survey courses - perhaps returning to a core curriculum for all undergraduates during their first two years.

Gradually, as scientifically literate teachers take up places in schools, the knowledge and skills of our high-school graduates will increase. Maybe in a decade the majority of freshmen will already have achieved basic science literacy. They will be prepared for new "university level" courses that will help them evolve into the sophisticated scholars needed in the next century. But only by taking a long-term approach can we make real progress towards breaking the scientific illiteracy cycle.

George 'Pinky' Nelson is a research astronomer and director of Project 2061, a nationwide science, mathematics, and technology initiative of the AAAS. He flew three space shuttle missions from 1978 to 1989 while a NASA astronaut.

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