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Still a Land of Tinkerers?

IS it possible for a nation to be computer literate but not science literate?

Alas, yes. And the United States seems to be leading the way toward this perplexing state of techno-split.

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Despite occasional lapses, the US has led the world into the Computer Age. But its students regularly underperform their peers in other advanced nations on standardized tests in math and science.

Does this matter?

At first, the evidence seems reassuring. Nobel Prizes in the sciences continue to pour in. Japanese and Chinese educators still try to emulate the success of US universities. They seek to unlock American secrets for nurturing idiosyncratic brilliance in the pure sciences. And bright science and technology students from many nations apply for admission to US colleges and graduate schools by the tens of thousands. Many stay here. Downsizing in many industries has caused a glut of engineers.

So why worry about science education? There are actually three reasons to be concerned:

1. The general good of democratic society in the modern world. A basic knowledge of the scientific method helps to ensure (but of course does not guarantee) logical and critical thinking about many issues crucial to national and global progress. To fend off national decline citizens need both a steady moral compass and the ability to analyze. Lack of the latter shows up in such diverse areas as the perversion of court cases by "expert scientific witnesses" who are anything but, congressional ignorance on technology matters, and widespread citizen inability to grapple with misleading statistical information.

To grasp why improvement is currently needed, go into any large bookstore. Measure the section labeled "Astrology," then that for "Astronomy." Next, compare the "Occult" and "Science" shelves. We rest our case.

2. Career survival in this era of sudden job obsolescence. Basic scientific and technical knowledge is often a key to speedier and more flexible retraining. Not all careers demand technical education; but many of today's most promising career paths reward applicants with such knowledge - even if the specific job involves nontechnical aspects of the business world. The pride Americans once took in being a nation of inventors and tinkerers is as much needed in the infotech age as it was in the age of industrial revolution.

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3. A continuing supply of creative scientists. Competitive nations today need a ready flow of bright young innovators in science and technology. To achieve such continuous feeding of the relatively thin layer of top sci/tech performers, it makes sense to be sure prospective talent is exposed to the fascination of science early in the education process. And the majority of students who won't go into a sci/tech field benefit in the ways listed as points 1 and 2.

This past December the National Research Council launched what it billed as America's "first comprehensive standards to improve science education in grades K-12." Unfortunately the launch was nearly drowned out by the din over federal shut-downs. And the standards themselves, while not muddled like the first round of history standards, were safe and general rather than creatively galvanizing.

In the past half century the US has gone through alternating waves of anxiety over science teaching: first, that education might become too "hard" and practical and neglect the humanities; then, that it had strayed too far from the very agricultural and mechanical (A&M) foundation that had given this "nation of tinkerers" its primacy. (That concept had as patron saints inventors stretching from Jefferson through Edison, Bell, and the brothers Wright, to William Shockley, James Watson, and Bill Gates.)

Unfortunately, even high-visibility efforts to improve science education - notably the post-Sputnik push for new math and physics - have been either shortlived or flawed. A recent book, "The Myth of Scientific Literacy" by physics professor Morris Shamos, argues that such national pushes for widespread, extensive scientific literacy aren't, in fact, necessary.

Perhaps. Professor Shamos may be right if education reformers think only in terms of educating vast numbers of students in great depth. But that should not be the aim. A far more effective approach involves making sure that young students in K through 12 are exposed to the wonder and excitement of the earth sciences, bio-sciences, and astrophysics - with just enough depth of hands-on experimentation in each to make the connection to everyday life.

This requires a willingness of inspired teachers to break away from blackboard rigidity and teach with field trips and imaginative portrayals of the lives of creative scientists. Also, a willingness to teach the logic of the scientific method with examples that touch youngsters' lives. After such a general exposure to the marvels of exploring the universe around us, students who are deeply fascinated will self-select for more rigorous training and lifetime careers. And their classmates should be better citizens.

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