STEM education: the value of a scientifically literate population
By: Katherine Donigan
Even twenty years ago, the growing need for professionals in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the United States was apparent. In the early 2000’s, Judith Ramaley, assistant director of education at the National Science Foundation, among others, acknowledged this need and created the STEM acronym, a rallying point and a clear focus on the deficiency in these areas (1). In the intervening years, job growth and salaries in STEM fields have outpaced non-STEM sectors. STEM-related unemployment during the recession of 2008, for example, was at around half of the level of non-STEM unemployment (2). Despite the benefits of pursuing a science or engineering career, the United States ranks 23rd out of the 34 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) countries in terms of the proportion of STEM graduates in the 25-34 year old age group (2). A “skills gap” has emerged, as companies in the United States indicate they cannot find enough STEM workers to fill an estimated three million jobs (3). Encouraging and adequately preparing students interested in STEM careers must become a priority if the United States is to remain internationally competitive in these fields.
While the strength of our STEM workforce remains critical, discussions should focus not only on preparing more people to specialize in these fields to fill related jobs, but also on the exposure to STEM that all grade school children receive. Skills developed by studying STEM subjects in grade school will benefit students throughout their lives, regardless of their chosen profession. The “science way of thinking” teaches analytical skills, skepticism and the value of drawing conclusions from careful observation and measurement (4). Exposure to STEM at an early age will also provide individuals with valuable tools to function in an increasingly technical world. There is also a philosophical imperative for studying STEM – as stated by Leon Lederman, physics Nobel Laureate and recent co-chair of the National Science Board Commission on 21st Century Education in STEM, students in these fields benefit from “the sense of wonder and awe that emerges from a student’s gradual realization that the natural world is orderly and comprehensible” (4). To study STEM is to study ourselves and the world around us.
Efforts to focus on the importance of education in these fields have seen some gains in scientific literacy, but there is still room for significant improvement. The American public’s level of scientific understanding and literacy, as determined by having “sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas to be able to read the Science section in the Tuesday New York Times” was estimated at around 28 percent in 2008 (5). This is a marked improvement from only 10 percent of American adults in 1988. To obtain these data, Jon Miller, who directs the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, surveyed a sample of the U.S. adult population in 1988, 1999 and 2008 to evaluate “civic scientific literacy” using questions that address fundamental scientific concepts. His results indicated that “37 percent of American adults accepted the concept of biological evolution in 2008 and the level of acceptance has declined over the last twenty years” (5,6). He also showed that while 85 percent of adults recognize that all plants and animals have DNA, but that only 44 percent can actually define DNA (5,6). While the overall trend in the United States is positive, there is still significant progress to be made.
How might the United States improve basic STEM education and achieve a more scientifically literate society? One thought is to have PhD-level scientists teaching grade school science and math. But having advanced scientific skills is not the equivalent of having teaching skills. Lederman proposes that scientists work in collaboration with K-12 STEM educators “until teacher training and professional development advance to levels required by the needs of 21st century STEM education” (4). Such collaboration would provide educators with a strong foundation of STEM concepts as well as information about exciting new research developments. This alliance between researchers and educators would facilitate the teaching of hypothesis-driven inquiry in addition to basic concepts.
Scientific literacy is also important with regards to policy informed by or governing STEM pursuits. All citizens in a democracy contribute to shaping policy by exercising the right to vote, and a scientifically literate population will naturally be more informed when it comes to science-related policy issues. As Miller says, “America’s democracy depends on having a larger number of scientifically literate citizens. Today’s political agenda includes debates over global climate change, embryonic stem cells, future energy sources, and the possibility of a viral pandemic” (6). Having an informed electorate helps to ensure that politically-motivated arguments against scientifically credible concepts, such as climate change and evolution, would gain less traction. As science and technology continue to develop, new discoveries will need to inform and shape policy. The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 presented us with unprecedented policy implications. Prior to these developments, few had questioned who should be able to access genetic information, as the ability to obtain a person’s DNA sequence was viewed as science fiction. After the discovery, however, policy makers debated the collection, storage and distribution of a person’s genetic information on a public, national stage. Policy implications are sure to arise for more recent discoveries and technologies, from synthetic biology to regulation of stem cell research, as well as labeling and sale of genetically modified foods. A scientifically literate voting public has the ability to think critically about these kinds of questions and to make informed decisions. It is, of course, impossible to prophesize future discoveries and policy implications, but having a population that is well-informed in the areas of STEM will allow us to meet unseen challenges and ensure better decisions.