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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 92 > Article

Science Literacy in Today's World

by Wyatt W. Anderson and Ronald D. Simpson

We live in a time when science and technology have never been more important. New scientific discoveries are being reported daily in the nation's news media. Advances in technology constantly after our lifestyles at work and at home.

Yet at the same time, many people are shunning science and are never learning even the basic skills needed to use science in their jobs and daily lives. Unfortunately, many opportunities in life will be denied to those who are scientifically illiterate. One of the most pressing problems in education today is finding ways to make our students-in secondary schools and in colleges-scientifically literate.

Just what is "science literacy"? Essentially, it's a basic appreciation of science, both as a body of knowledge based on past discoveries and as a way to obtain knowledge about the world. This kind of understanding is essential, and our educational system should develop it in every student.

The concept of science literacy has its roots in the "progressive education" movement of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which called for educators to teach a broader and more practical brand of science than had been taught in the past. The ‘50s brought Sputnik and a realization that Americans were falling behind in scientific knowledge and research. Consequently, the pendulum swung back to a more demanding science curriculum that would prepare students as professional scientists and engineers.

During the past decade, scientists and educators alike have realized that science literacy must focus on more than science alone. The relationships among science, technology and society also must be a major goal of science educators.

Let us consider a few issues involving science and society. Computers, for instance, affect our everyday lives, from school an work records to the groceries we buy at the store, in both positive-and sometimes controversial-ways.

Many schools teach courses in computer literacy, as well as more advanced topics such as programming. Computers in turn are a very powerful tool for learning about a variety of subjects, from math to literature. Students can learn at their own speed and in their own ways.

Many people learn to use computers in classes held outside of schools. People can even learn to use computers from computers themselves. The machines are such powerful learning tools that people can learn to use them just with help from tutorials provided with software packages or from books.

The computer or "information" sciences have grown dramatically in the past few decades and are an integral part of modern life. Even though computers have made our lives easier in many ways, they have also greatly diminished our privacy. The records or our accomplishments and failures in school, in work, in finance and in our personal lives are stored on disks and tapes that are all too easily accessed and retrieved by those who want to check on us.

As a society we have to balance the personal gains and losses in our lives with the increasing sophistication of information sciences. Are we justified in claiming a right to privacy? What can we or should we do about this issued?

Another example of the sort of issues students should learn about in science classes relates to the teaching of controversial theories. More than a hundred years ago Charles Darwin proposed that species, including our own Homo sapiens, originated by a process of natural selection. This hypothesis has been tested critically again and again ans is now accepted by the scientific community at large, although some individual scientists many disagree with it. Despite its central role in biology, the theory of evolution had engendered a continuous controversy, even to the point that laws have been proposed to regulate its teaching. The problem lies in the conflict between evolutionary science and the religious beliefs of many people.

A literal interpretation of the creation account in the Bible is inconsistent with many scientific observations. Here, faith and science seem to be in conflict, and one result has been the development of an alternative account, dubbed creation science, that provides an explanation consistent with biblical creation accounts.

In our society, individuals have the right to hold their own beliefs. But do they have the right to insist that others be taught their beliefs while competing positions are excluded? Is it right, in order to avoid controversy, to avoid teaching either viewpoint? Do teachers have a right to teach the accepted body of scientific knowledge? The creation-evolution debate brings out all these questions and illustrates the impact of science on society.

The recent conflict in the Persian Gulf made us acutely aware of the role of science in developing weapons. Smart bombs, nuclear weapons and biological warfare were discussed daily. These weapons represent the use science to destroy, rather than enhance, life.

For hundreds of years, one of the strongest criticisms of science has been its use in developing weapons, from the crossbow to the rifle to the atomic bomb. The application of science to warfare raises the question, is science worthwhile? Does it bring more good than bad? Do scientists have the right to study whatever they consider important?

Who, in a pluralistic society, has the right to decide these kinds of issues?

It is inescapable that every significant advance in science leads to questions of values and belief systems. It is no longer possible to pretend that science is a purely logical and value-free enterprise and that its implications are a different matter separate from the science itself. We should explore ethical implications of science in our courses so students will learn from the beginning that science bears directly on our personal lives on the world as a whole.

With scientific literacy as the major goal of our teaching in science, our students will understand that science is not just for scientists, but is for everyone in society. Science involves decisions that lie at the core of our society; to make intelligent choices, society needs informed citizens who have a firm foundation in science.

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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