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Archive for Sunday, October 30, 2005

Disinterest in science could cost Americans

October 30, 2005

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As a society, we're increasingly ignorant about science, and if that continues, it's going to cost us.

The alarms are sounding from every direction.

In July, a report signed by 15 prominent business leaders said we need to double the number of science, math and engineering graduates by the year 2015.

In September, IBM said it would back 100 employees financially to leave the company and become math and science teachers.

Earlier this month, the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine issued a report titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm."

It urged the nation to recruit 10,000 students to science and math teaching each year by creating scholarships. In return, program graduates would teach in the public schools for five years.

Some other morsels from that report:

l More than 600,000 engineers graduated from higher education institutions in China last year, 350,000 from India - and 70,000 from the United States.

l U.S. 12th-graders recently performed below the international average of 21 countries on general knowledge in science and math.

Still not worried? Think about this one: Last year, chemical companies shut down 70 plants in the United States and designated 40 for closure. Today, of 120 large plants under construction around the world, 50 are in China. One is in the United States.

I asked Joe Heppert what we should do about cultivating student interest in science and math. Heppert directs the Kansas University Center for Science Education.

First, he said, "we scientists need to do better at communicating the excitement and beauty of science to the public, including to kids in K through 12."

Second, scientists need to show how science impacts our lives, examining such problems as drug-resistant bacteria or new diseases. They need to start with concrete facts rather than abstractions - with bird flu, say, rather than a description of the structures of a cell.

Third, scientists need to tell kids what a scientist's life is actually like.

"We find new knowledge," Heppert says. "We develop new understandings, look at relationships among things that influence the environment, look at how to develop new products, look at issues of health in new ways."

But scientists and educators can't do everything, Heppert says.

Collectively, we must provide better salaries for those who teach science and math.

Otherwise, the wealthiest districts get the best teachers, and the poorest rural and urban schools may get none at all. Meaning that the chance that kids who go to those schools will become scientists approaches the vanishing point.

The reason to make this effort is not simply the loss or gain of human potential, as important as that is.

It's also about our collective economic well-being.

A scientifically and technologically literate work force is as important to that as highways are to commerce, Heppert says.

Way back in 1960, an essay in a slim volume titled "Evolution and Culture" spoke of the "Principle of Stabilization." The authors, anthropologists at the University of Michigan, wrote that "a culture at rest tends to stay at rest."

We've been content about our scientific ignorance for too long. Eventually, what we don't know is going to cost us.

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