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ASU Undergrads Travel To Heart Of Science Literacy Debate, Find Some Light, Some Darkness

Arizona State University

The confusion surrounding the cause of "scientific literacy" is an issue of some concern to senior scientists and policy makers, but perhaps today's students -- scientists at the very beginning of their careers -- are uniquely qualified to add insight to the debate.

A group of Arizona State University undergraduates will do just that at a American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) National Meeting session on Feb. 15 entitled "Advocating Scientific Change: A History of the Future," as they present the results of a semester's research into the issues surrounding the advocacy of scientific literacy. The only undergraduates presenting at AAAS, the students find that the mix of different viewpoints in the policy debate are surprisingly in agreement with each other, but point out that even in agreement there are unresolved confusion and a number of conflicting issues.

Among all the parties involved, the paper argues, "there emerges the common theme that science is a vital endeavor of which 'all Americans' must be aware. Scientific literacy then entails that humans not just apply science but that they interact with and access science in a whole new way." The fact of basic agreement, however, "obscures significant complexities" still lurking in the issue.

Entitled "To the Future: Arguments for Scientific Literacy," the conference paper is the final product of an class entitled "Science, Literacy and Washington, D.C." taught by ASU Professor Jane Maienschein, a faculty member in the philosophy and biology departments and the director of the university's Biology and Society Program. The students traveled to Washington last June to attend sessions of the House Science Committee, the House Science Committee on Education Issues and the Senate Science Committee, and met with various congressmen and staffs of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the AAAS, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Smithsonian Institution.

The students learned that though the issue of scientific literacy is fraught with confusion and consternation in Washington, the NAS, the AAAS and the NSF have all developed independent positions that are likely to be critical in defining new initiatives for science education. Congress also thinks that science literacy is important and has asked House Science Committee Vice-Chair Vernon Ehlers to address the issue with a special report.

Beyond the complexities of the politics involved, the students concluded that there were five key points in the debate that all three science association positions were built on. All agree that scientific literacy is (1) a measurable educational goal that is (2) publicly important, (3) necessary for all Americans (rather than a select few), (4) of real value in everyday life, and (5) tied "inextricably" to social issues.

However, the students point out that if one goes further beyond the surface agreement of these important science organizations, there is still a bewildering tangle of issues that reveal a variety of conflicting interests at work: What exactly is science literacy -- is it knowledge of science facts or should it be instead critical thinking skills, a "habit of mind"? If it is critical thinking, how do we measure teaching effectiveness? Is true scientific literacy for all Americans possible? How will we afford it? Is the end goal to allow people to understand key science issues, to appreciate science, or to be technologically capable? Is it to make the public into better thinkers? Or is the goal a combination of all of these things?

The students conclude: "So, above all, we want to reinforce the point that the apparent consensus obscures significant complexities such that we need further work to continue moving successfully towards the goal of achieving greater literacy." The arguments are not complete, the students point out, and much more work is necessary to bring all parties to a coherent consensus.

Besides Maienschein, the papers co-authors are David Borough (senior, computer science), Ingrid Burger (senior, University of Arizona), Reza Enshaie ( junior, physics), Marie Glitz (senior, interdisciplinary studies), Arthur Kesh (postbac, biology), Kate Kevern (senior, physics), Brent Maddin (senior, biology), Joseph Martinez (grad, biology), Mark Rivera (junior, philosophy), Diana Rutowski (freshman, University of Arizona), Matthew Shindell (senior, Biology and Society), Pablo Tapia (senior, computer science), Alon Unger (senior, religious studies and biology), and Susan Williams (postbac).

For more information on the paper or the students, contact Jim Hathaway at 602-965-6375 or Jane Maienschein at 602-965-6105.


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