Few would like to return to the days of the Cold War — an era during the 1950s and 60s when the United States and the Soviet Union competed for military supremacy in a nuclear chess match. But the sense of urgency generated by the geopolitical struggle was the impetus — certainly one of the driving forces — behind America’s push to become the first nation to successfully land a man on the moon.
To accomplish that goal, the United States needed to ensure that its science and technology education was second to none. The Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 — the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth — jolted the United States into action. Science education became a priority in this nation. And dividends were paid with a successful manned space flight in 1969 — nearly a decade after President John F. Kennedy outlined that goal. It left little doubt about the technological superiority of the United States.
But nearly four and a half decades later, the state of science education in the United States has become much more ambiguous. For example, tests measuring scientific aptitude and knowledge show that American children are not at the top of the list. Not even in the top 5. And many educators have decried a lack of interest in science at the middle and high school levels.
So, what has gone wrong? Like most such complex questions, the answer does not lie in a single cause. But a de-emphasis on science education — and especially science literacy — has played a role in that decline, according to Susan Cusato, chairwoman of the Science Education and Environmental Studies Department at Southern. During the last few decades, education has placed more emphasis on literacy and mathematics — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – but Cusato contends that it has come at the expense of science education.
“It is generally not until middle school that actual science teachers begin teaching science,” Cusato says. “What happens is that there is a continual catch-up process in the classroom.”
Cusato also feels that science education has done a disservice in focusing too heavily on training scientists, rather than promoting scientific literacy. She says students should have achieved basic literacy skills in all the major disciplines before college, including science.
“No matter what career path or profession our students choose, knowledge and wonder of science is critical,” she says. “By avoiding science you miss out on experiencing incredible things on a different level that can bring you great joy and insight.” She points to driving a car, riding a plane, or going to a concert, as examples of everyday tasks people often take for granted without understanding how science makes those things happen.
She says that scientific literacy is needed, not merely to fulfill an academic requirement, but to gain a better appreciation and understanding for what is happening around us. This would include climate change, pandemics and the search for sustainable energy sources.
So, what can we do to improve our scientific literacy? Cusato recommends several steps we can take that are relatively simple and don’t require a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics.
- Visit museums, parks and nature centers. Pick out some activities you enjoy, or would like to try, such as maple syrup weekends, bird watching, fishing or nature walks. Science is part of all of them.
- When reading the paper or listening to the news, try to pay attention to science stories. They may be more interesting than you think initially.
- Read science magazines and other publications. They don’t have to be dissertations on string theory or Einstein’s theory of relativity. But many science-based magazines are available at local bookstores, and are written for the general public with photos and diagrams that help illustrate the subject matter.
- Mention a timely scientific topic at a family gathering or when you are with friends. It may actually inspire others to learn more about a subject.
- Don’t be afraid to ask science-related questions of your teacher, doctor, or anyone involved in the sciences. Many people enjoy talking about their chosen fields of expertise with others.
Speaking of science education, Southern will hold a groundbreaking ceremony Friday on a new academic and science laboratory building. To read more, check out: http://www.southernct.edu/about/construction/new-science-building.html