News: News Archives
Slide Show AAAS at EuroScience Open Forum, 2004
Shirley Malcom's Speech
Late night American television host, Jay Leno, has a regular segment called “jaywalking.” It involves Leno stopping passers – by and asking them general knowledge questions about geography or history or science. While this could in no way be considered a test of science literacy the embarrassingly bad answers to simple questions given by the people on the street clearly raise concerns about just how much Americans don’t know about science.
Just how well informed do Americans or Europeans consider themselves? When one asks this question in a more scientific way we find that more than 60% of Europeans consider themselves poorly informed about science and technology, while some 30% of Americans describe themselves as poorly informed. Thirty- three percent of Europeans consider themselves well informed, and fewer than 15 per cent of Americans describe themselves as well informed.
These data are drawn from Eurobarometer 55.2, the 2001 report of an opinion poll of a sample of over 16,000 people, aged 15 and over, in member states of the European Union. US data are drawn from Science and Engineering Indicators 2004, a bienniel report of the National Science Board to the President and Congress of the U.S. on the state of science and technology in the nation.
Let’s turn next to questions of interest. When asked about interest in science and technology, 45% of Europeans indicated that they were interested; over half of Europeans (52.2%) indicated that they were not very interested in science and technology. About the same 45% of Americans indicated that they were very interested, and only 10% said they were not interested. Either we in the U.S. are doing a good job of piquing interest (among that 45% who claim moderate interest), or we have convinced them that they should be embarrassed enough to at least lie about it!
According to Eurobarometer and Indicators there is considerable ambivalence about science and technology in our lives, though not necessarily in the same way. Looking at their responses to the following questions we begin to see the differences between Americans and Europeans in stark contrast.
- Science & technology making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable.” 86% of Americans agreed; 71% of Europeans.
- “Thanks to science & technology there will be greater opportunities for future generations.” In the U.S. 85% agreed; 72% in Europe.
“The benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results.” 72% of Americans agreed compared with 50 per cent of Europeans.
Europeans are more guarded (and perhaps more realistic) about the role of science & technology in society. They certainly seem to believe that science & technology cannot be the answer to all the problems of the world, but also see science & technology as having significant contributions to make in addressing many issues, such as those related to health and environment.
More education yields more positive attitudes as well as more skepticism.
Americans seem to be overly positive and over optimistic, in many ways, about seeing science & technology as beneficial. The reservations appear around areas of science & technology clashing with moral values. The polls also reveal concerns about depending more on science than on faith, (51% of Americans; 45% of Europeans) and about science changing the pace of life. In the U.S. 38% agreed with the statement that” Science makes our way of life change too fast” compared with 61% of Europeans.
The less knowledgeable American respondents were, according to Indicators, the more they agreed with concerns about the pace of change and over dependence on science rather than faith.
When we look at the figures in both the U.S. and Europe we wonder about the basis of their knowledge. Where do people learn about science and technology?
The most obvious answer to that question is that people learn about science (and often less about technology) in school. Or not. Most people then add to the base (or not) through interactions with science and technology as they occur in news. Most Americans obtain their news from television where 53% of respondents to the NSF survey indicated this as their leading source of news, followed by newspapers at 29%. Television was the leading source of news about science & technology (44%), followed by newspapers (16%) and magazines (16%).
Europeans also rely primarily on television for their news about science & technology, followed by newspapers and news magazines. Radio, which ranks third among Europeans for news related to science & technology, is much more important as a source of overall news in developing countries. Expansion of science & technology news on radio has been an area of strong interest to AAAS both in the U.S. and in our work with South Africa. It is an under exploited area of intervention for donors seeking to improve the quality and increase the amount of science & technology information in developing countries.
In the U.S. respondents indicated that when they are seeking information about specific science issues they employ a different “search” pattern, relying most heavily on Internet (44%) and books (24%). Reliance on these sources raises issues for the science community in terms of directing users to quality sites and books. At AAAS we publish the only critical review journal for books and media in the US, SB&F, and several projects aimed at the public and at teachers (as a special part of the public) point users specifically to high quality, reviewed Internet sites.
It is clear that much of what we are doing on both sides of the Atlantic is falling short of our ambitions in terms of reaching the public, grabbing their attention and providing them with quality information.
The Eurobarometer indicated some pretty clear attitudes of Europeans about science information media:
- They prefer to watch television programmes on S&T rather than read articles (66.4%).
- They rarely read articles on S&T (60%).
- They do not agree with the statement that there are too many articles and programmes (almost 66% disagreed).
- There is enough sentiment about the negative presentation of S&T that it warrants consideration (36.5% agree that articles are presented too negatively; 39.1% inclined to disagree).
- And a majority (53.3%) were inclined to agree with the statement that most journalists treating scientific subjects do not have the necessary knowledge or training!
Data from the U.S. indicate stratification of sources for science and technology information. Internet users, science magazine subscribers, NYT Science Times readers, all represent a narrow band of target audiences. A more popular and populist sources of science and technology information in the U.S. appears to be places of science, such as zoos and aquaria and S&T museums. Americans are much more likely than Europeans to visit such places.
Places U.S. Europe
Zoos/Aquaria 58% 26%
S& T Centers 30% 11%
A greater proportion of both Americans and Europeans visited public libraries (75% and 31%, respectively) than any other type of public establishment. AAAS has been active in developing and managing science based programming for public libraries for just this reason —libraries’ broad appeal and access for a wide range of audiences.
What Builds and Shapes Interest in S&T?
There are many who believe that humans come into the world with the basics to embrace science. Baby humans ask questions of nature and develop their own answers, which cognitive researchers will attest to, are quite resistant to change. Changing early conceptions about the way the world works involves understanding that such prior ideas are in place and deliberately engaging children in school with experiences that are sufficiently robust (and that directly confront prior assumptions) so as to replace these with science based concepts. This is the role of formal education, especially at the primary level. Once a framework of concepts begins to be put in place, specific information can be nailed onto this frame as one proceeds through school. But perhaps as important is the need to erect a set of ideas about the way that science works (its tentative nature; that we can change our minds about something if better information becomes available, and so on).
The experiences that young people have outside of school (how to spin when skating, the slipperiness of ice, things that float and sink in water) can be placed into some larger context, supported by concepts hopefully learned in school.
All of us struggle to determine how to support and sustain early interest in science and technology. There is a lot of science out there to know.
- What science is it important to know? (Does the answer to this depend on who you are? Where you live? What issues you face?)
- What is it about science that should be taught? (Facts? concepts? processes? importance of evidence? history?)
How should science be taught? (Through reading? Lecture? Hands on? Cookbook experiments?)
Who is taught? (Should science be for everyone? Only for those who will become scientists?)
The Standards Movement
In 1985 the AAAS began Project 2061, an effort to articulate a statement of what a high school graduate who would be living and working in the 21st century would need to know about science, mathematics and technology. The name comes from the year of Halley’s comet’s return, symbolic of the futures focus of this initiative. The mathematics community had previously organized itself to develop similar statements about mathematics learning. AAAS brought together groups of scientists and engineers from universities and industry, as well as teachers and representatives of the public to consider what science (and what about SMT) should be taught to everyone. Science for All Americans was published in1989, followed in 1993 by publication of Benchmarks for Science Literacy, an “unpacking” of SFAA for use by educators, curriculum and textbook developers and others that related the level of schooling (and developmental level of children) to the specific ideas and knowledge that underlay the concepts.
Subsequently (in 1996) the National Science Education Standards were published by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science. The “what is taught” question is very consistent with Benchmarks. The NSES’ major contribution was its focus on “the how” of science teaching. It is important that both AAAS and the NRC developed their work from inputs by the science and education communities, but in the U.S. no schools were under any obligation to adopt them. There is no ministry of education that determines curriculum for the country. These decisions are made within a distributed system of states and some 15,000 independent school districts. The development of standards was presented as one possible answer to the absence of a unified vision of what science and mathematics need to be taught. Only the strength of the ideas and quality of the products could lead to their adoption (or adaptation) by individual districts.
Historically in the United States access to education in science, mathematics and engineering has not been equally distributed. As in the rest of the world there have been differences based on sex (boys having greater access than girls). But other factors have also produced differences in course taking, access to quality teachers and rigorous study, even differences in expectations of success. Students from poor families have had less access than those from wealthier families. Students in suburban schools have had more access than those from urban and rural students districts. Asian and White students have had higher levels of participation than young African American and Latino students.
Greater emphasis on bringing so called “underrepresented groups” into the sciences have narrowed the gaps in coursetaking, but concerns still exist with regard to access to quality teachers and rigorous curriculum.
Despite the fact that both SFAA and NSES both emphatically affirm the idea of “science for all,” performance gaps persist, driven by the cumulative disadvantage faced by underrepresented groups.
Programs to bring more females and minorities into science have found tremendous success by employing challenging material and hands on, inquiry-based instructional strategies. Promising programs utilizing such strategies have been developed at the primary level through partnerships of scientists and educators. Examples include the Teachers Academy for Math and Science in Chicago created by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman and La Main a la Pate, a programme of the French Academy of Science founded by Nobel Laureate George Charpak. Just as they were joined in their science, they are colleagues in their commitment to and involvement in efforts to improve science education for all beginning at the primary level.
In a recent workshop organized by AAAS in collaboration with UNESCO, and supported by the US National Science Foundation, Lederman and Charpak discussed their initiatives and the global challenges that compel greater effort. In an op – ed in the International Herald Tribune they noted:
“The truth is that if there is a shortage of support for science, the cause can be placed at the feet of scientist and engineers. Science can make us rich and healthy. But we are reluctant to talk about our joy and passion for the work we do. We also neglect to communicate to children the opportunities that an education in science and engineering can give them to become producers of knowledge and not just consumers.
Building on such efforts by the Academy of Sciences of France and the enabling efforts of ICSU, the Inter Academy Panel is now poised to spread such activities around the globe. The challenge remains of documenting the effectiveness of such strategies compared with other methods of instruction, and of building a base of evidence that will sustain activity beyond the tenure of their champions and leaders.
There is much to recommend strategies that focus on inquiry, on building habits of mind that value evidence and that support understanding the processes of science — not the list that students must memorize but the processes that emerge through authentic experiences.
The Tale of the Snail
A wonderful example of an “authentic experience” was brought to my attention recently by Ed Lempinen of the AAAS Office of Public Programs. Ed had interviewed one of the student scientists AAAS had sent to the APEC Fourth Science Youth Fair in Beijing earlier this month. Vaishali Grover is a 17 year old high school senior from Miami, Florida. She won a first place award for a science project “which discovered how papaya and pineapple could be incorporated into an anti–fouling paint for the bottom of ship hulls to prevent accumulation of marine organisms and to reduce the need for and use of substances now used which employ toxic heavy metals.”
In her own words:
“I live in Miami, so we have some papaya trees. And I was watering the papaya and I noticed there were a lot of empty snail shells at the base of this tree. So I was wondering why there were so many empty snail shells under this tree and not underneath an avocado tree or a mango tree or anything like that.”
Her observation led her to connect the use of papaya as a meat tenderizer and to determine that the enzyme papain (and later) the enzyme bromelain in pineapple could break down the protein of snails.
The new enzyme - based product developed from these natural products is more effective and less expensive than currently used paints as well as being environmentally safer.
Vaishali likely ended up working a lot harder and learning a lot more about enzymes than usually offered in a high school course or text. An in all likelihood so too did her classmates who got caught up in her story and her quest.
Guiding students through formal education should not be like running an obstacle course, but instead “sharing the storyline about how the world works and how we come to know.”
Our unit at AAAS, EHR, has as one of its fundamental operating strategies that of deliberately connecting the formal and informal learning opportunities to increase student knowledge and liking of science. No where is this illustrated more clearly than in “Kinetic City Mission to Vearth,” an Internet adventure based on our Peabody award winning children’s radio program, Kinetic City Super Crew. It seeks to:
- target children from ages 8 to 11 or 12, where interest in science often begins to wane;
- target the science concepts elaborated in formal education for this age group;
- connect to out of school, team based activities and
- involve both online adventures and offline activities.
The storyline is based on a group of children who live in a computer world, VEARTH, or virtual Earth. A villain has escaped from the virtual world into the actual world and planted a computer virus, Deep Delete, which destroys the laws of nature. The only way for these to be restored is for real children to re–discover the science through a range of activities, including hands - on experiments, writing and art assignments, as well as physical challenges. An arcade - like game allows students to demonstrate their knowledge and re – establish the science.
If one looks closely, one can see a one-to- one correspondence between the Project 2061 Benchmarks and the Deep Delete virus strains.
While there may be many who subscribe to the belief of “no pain, no gain,” this is not what was seen for the students who participated in the pilot evaluation of Kinetic City.
The control group in this study had access only to the kits of materials while the experimental group had the kits plus the web- based story. There was a pre - test and a post - test for both control and experimental groups. The important finding is that both groups increased their knowledge between pre - test and post- test, but the gain by the experimental group was 3 times that of the control group.
And yes, students can distinguish between the fantasy of the story and the real science of their activities.
Turning our attention back to adults, the Eurobarometer findings remind us that interest is only part of the story. There is the need to support interest with information and, where possible, stimulate interest. Around 29% of respondents were informed and interested. Another nearly 15% were interested but not informed, while almost 46.5%described themselves as neither informed nor interested.
We have been challenged on numerous occasions at AAAS to develop strategies for target audiences around science topics that have clear implications for people’s lives. One of our most interesting case studies involved the Human Genome Project. When funding for the Human Genome Project was designated for the National Institutes of Health and Department of Energy, a portion of the funding was set aside to support projects addressing the ethical, legal and social issues which might arise as a result of this research. We received support to develop a project that could provide information on the science and its implications to the largest possible audience.
Our advisors urged us to develop stories to draw our readers into the chapters where the science was described. We knew that most readers would have to work to understand the concepts, even though we had written and re–written the text many times to bring it to the lowest possible reading level. We needed to make the materials compelling, as well as accessible. We developed other products as well, including a short video that provided some of the same information about implications. We reached out with these materials to community groups such as libraries, senior citizens organizations, museums and faith–based groups, where we encouraged linking the materials to discussions with bioscientists, health professionals and genetic counselors who were prepared to answer some of these questions that members of the public might have.
One of the greatest challenges of Your Genes, Your Choices, our HGP primer, was the ever changing research landscape. How to develop a print product that could withstand the march of research progress.? The first edition of the book had seven chapters and was seriously out of date a month after printing, when Dolly the sheep was cloned. In the second printing we were able to include a chapter on cloning to specifically answer some of the scientific questions being raised by the public and, hopefully, to demonstrate just how tough it is to dismiss ethical concerns about research or to mindlessly abandon a promising line of research.
Perhaps our goals for such a product were too modest. The online version of YGYC became one of the most widely visited on the Department of Energy site (our funders), was used from middle schools to universities in courses and spread around the world. Requests for approval to translate came from every corner of the globe.
Making materials more accessible is part of the story, but making them compelling has to be the other part. We asked ourselves, if they are not widely interested in science and technology, what are Americans interested in. The answers were not surprising: first, they are interested in things that may affect them directly. Research by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press indicated that S&T ranked 9th among topics of news followed by the American public. Top among these were community, crime, health and sports.
The next question is “what do you do with this information?” I have proposed four possibilities here, though there are likely many others.
Draw connections between science and what DOES interest people
Tell the stories of science
Promote greater involvement of scientists
Improve connections between scientists and science intermediaries, translators and mediators e.g. (teachers, journalists, museum educators).
I have been very impressed by the Swedish “Soup Theatre” as an engaging strategy for attracting audience and connecting scientists to the public. But as my boss would be quick to point out, and as I am sure Swedish program developers know very well, not all scientists should be recruited to do this!
The most popular television program in the U.S. is “CSI (Crime Scene Investigation)” which details the science of forensics. Author and physical anthropologist Dr. Kathy Reichs also uses forensics as the basis for her best selling books. In neither case do the writers “dumb down” the science. Cable television, such as Discovery Health attracts wide viewership. And when tied to athletics, people are also willing to work at understanding the science.
At AAAS we have worked to bring the science related to health concerns to “hard to reach audiences” such as with the Healthy People series of books, aimed at providing science information related to minority health disparities with dissemination through public libraries.
If you remember earlier in this presentation I mentioned that often people note with concern that science does not always confront the moral and ethical issues that emerge with the research. The faith- based community has often been a specific outlet for our work. And where the ethical issues are inherent in the research we try to provide the science that helps people understand the choices with which they, as individuals and as citizens in a democracy, may be asked to face.
Many of the best stories about science come directly from scientists. The scientists who have worked with us in our outreach have been willing and trained to do so. They often say that they do this because they feel an obligation to the public that is supporting their work, or because they want to share their excitement and enthusiasm for their work, especially with young people.
The most recent Indicators report notes that, when asked about public outreach, 42% of scientists were not involved in any, mostly because they didn’t have time. And the people who either didn’t want to or don’t care about it likely shouldn’t be doing it anyway.
The scientists who do not participate may be making a rational choice as long as the community of science does not recognize the value and necessity of this work or actively discourages such efforts.
But we all must understand the bargain this entails:
- Leave it to others to tell the stories, and then complain if they get it wrong.
- Do not tell the stories and ignore accountability to the public that supports the work.
The issues relate not only to a connection to the public but also to the quality of teaching in the formal education community at all levels. The “appetite for lifelong connection to S& T” is often made or lost in school and/ university. And what of our ability to attract and educate the next generation of scientists and engineers?
In many of the recent meetings I have attended, concerns have been raised, especially among developed countries, about a lack of interest in science studies by young people. This topic is the subject of an OECD study within the Global Science Forum. Looking at the student responses from Europe we find an interesting set of perspectives.
It is hard for me who has spent a large part of my life in science, who works in an organization committed to advancing science, whose husband and daughters are in science based areas, to find responses that call science not appealing, too difficult and uninteresting.
From the young child exploring his or her world to the young adult who declares him-or her-self uninterested. Where do we go wrong!
In the U.S. we have disconnected the parts of the system, paying too little attention to what happens in school science and to where and how we will provide a sense of what science is and what it isn’t. Even though an increasing number of students participate in higher education and most courses of study require some science, the courses offered often do not challenge the students to understand 21st century science or fail to connect to the implications in their lives or the wonders of nature that have captured human imagination since we first stood upright.
We have to get better at telling the stories of science, and we need to find and engage the partners who will help us do this. Congratulations to Euroscience Open Forum for its efforts to tell the stories of science.