Updated Aug. 21, 2008 at 7:58 a.m.

Premium Lock Are Americans science-savvy?

Published: 2008-08-21 07:54:00
Updated: 2008-08-21 07:58:02

Editor’s note: Writing today’s Skinny and filling in for LTW Editor Rick Smith this week is Noah Garrett. You can reach Noah directly at noah@thinkngc.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – A few months ago, I had a chance to catch up with national e-learning expert Dr. Kemi Jona to dive a little deeper into today’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) crisis and to discuss how today’s STEM superstars are, as Dr. Jona puts it, the real next American Idols – not singers!

Some of you may even remember that post. If not, just to refresh your memory, Dr. Jona is a Research Associate Professor of Learning Sciences and Computer Science at Northwestern University and Director of the Office of STEM Education Partnerships where he leads research and development projects in curriculum design, learning technology, online science and virtual labs, and web-based patient education and outreach.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Jona designed and oversaw the development of custom learning solutions for numerous corporate clients including GE Capital, Wal-Mart, Eaton/Cutler-Hammer, Deloitte, and Accenture. He also led a multi-year partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that produced an award-winning interactive learning system currently in use throughout the U.S.

Shall we just say, based on his resume and accomplishments, he’s the man when it comes to national e-learning initiatives.

I spoke with him via email on Wednesday after he sent an article to me entitled: Are we science-savvy enough to make informed decisions? In the story posted by USA Today, there was a survey of American adults that takes a dim view of our country’s status as a world science leader:

• 70% believe the USA is not now the world leader in science achievement.

• 35% believe the USA will be the world science leader in the next 20 years.

• 79% agree that science is not receiving the attention it deserves in schools.

In other sober news, a study released earlier this year states that there is evidence to support a new, broader concern this election year that “ordinary Americans may not know enough about science to make informed decisions on key questions.”

Seventy-six percent of Americans say presidential candidates should make improving science education a national priority, according to a national Harris Interactive survey of 1,304 adults conducted in November and December of last year and released in the spring. But, only 26 percent believe that they themselves have a good understanding of science, and 44 percent couldn't identify a single scientist, living or dead, whom they'd consider a role model for the nation's young people.

“These results are troubling," Dr. Jona put in the subject line of his email. “Some important scientific questions are being debated this year. I just came back from the National Science and Technology Summit at Oak Ridge National Lab, and the keynote of the conference was the CEO of National Semiconductor and he said `even D.C. lawmakers are apathetic about the U.S. high-tech industry and maintaining its competitiveness with other countries. “’

Dr. Jona added, “His number one message was apathy – at all levels – from the public to congress. There is no Sputnik to arouse a shared sense of urgency.”

Agreed. But, how can we advance the understanding of the cause/effect scenario when it comes to broadening participation in STEM education?

Dr Jona explained that parents, employers and teachers all need to do their part in helping make students aware of the breadth of STEM careers. Then, he added, we need to make STEM education jobs as exciting as possible to close the gap between what STEM jobs look like and what STEM education looks like; that will motivate students and help them see the relevance of what they are learning to possible future career options.

“There is no bigger turnoff than having to memorize facts and formulas that aren’t made relevant to solving realistic problems. That’s not what a STEM job is about and it shouldn’t be what STEM education is about either.” Dr. Jona said.

Scientific knowledge isn’t the end-all antidote for building an informed citizenry. But, when it comes to public-policy decisions and political debates, good insight does matter. Get informed. Our next president will need to tackle this issue head on, and we must know what we’re talking about to succeed.

That’s important....

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