Public Release: 

Arizona State University Undergraduates Make Plea For Scientific Literacy In Science Editorial

Arizona State University

The journal Science, published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), is probably the leading publication of the scientific community. On August 14, a group of Arizona State University and University of Arizona students and their faculty mentor will get to address that community with an editorial on the critical issue of scientific literacy.

"According to the staff of Science, this is the first time undergraduates have ever authored an editorial there," said Jane Maienschein, professor of philosophy and biology, director of ASU's Biology and Society Program and the group's mentor and co-author.

"This is the result of over a year of study, including site visits to Washington to speak with legislators and policy makers, a conference paper a major international convention and untold hours of individual research. We were invited to write an editorial on this globally important issue because these students were the best people to address it," she said.

The editorial addresses the critical importance of improving scientific literacy in our society, while at the same time noting a dangerous and "astonishing ambiguity" in definitions of the issue being used by the policy makers and educational theorists involved.

The editorial separates these differing views into arguments for "science literacy" -- a focus on learning specific scientific or technical knowledge, or "training" -- and arguments for "scientific literacy" -- a focus on learning "scientific ways of knowing" and critical thinking. The authors point out that the former is more attractive because it is easier and produces short-term results, while "promoting scientific literacy requires a new way of teaching for which few teachers are prepared. It stresses long-term process over short-term product and questions over answers." In the end, the piece argues that policy addressing both of these literacies is necessary.

In addition to Maienschein, the paper's authors include Ingrid Burger, Reza Enshaie, Marie Glitz, Kate Kevern, Brent Maddin, Mark Rivera, Diana Rutowski, Matthew Shindell, and Alon Unger. David Burough, Arthur Kesh, Joseph Martinez, Pablo Tapia and Susan Williams also assisted in the research.


Why Should You Care About Scientific Literacy?

Do you think the issue of scientific literacy is a boring, technical, or largely irrelevant educational issue? Consider the following:

Without science and its past discoveries, we wouldn't have air conditioning, air travel, antibiotics, computers, canned food, the internet, movies, radios, refrigerators, telephones, televisions or vcrs, to name a few of the basic technological conveniences of modern life.

Without science, we would have the black plague, manual labor, foot and animal travel, feudal culture and world hunger.

Scientific discoveries made mostly in the last seventy years ( a human lifetime) have led to these radical changes in technology and world culture.

In the biosciences, recent discoveries have made possible the biotechnologies of cloning and artificially engineered organisms (to name two) -- technologies whose impact cannot be understood without basic scientific literacy.

Science is speeding up, and with it the changes it causes. In many fields, knowledge is now literally doubling every couple of years. Technologies are being replaced with newer technologies at a similar rate, making much technological training obsolete soon after it is implemented.

By the broadest definition, more than 90% of current Americans are scientifically illiterate. American students received a notably low score on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

An open attempt was recently made to remove the study of evolution from the State of Arizona's science education standards, thus attacking the cornerstone of education in the modern biological sciences. Without understanding how evolution works, it is not possible to understand much of modern medicine, biotechnology, or the impact of such issues as cloning, genetic engineering and antibiotic resistance in bacteria, to name a few. After protest, Arizona's standards have been revised to include the concept again, and these model standards are expected to be approved by the Board of Education on August 24.


Jane Maienschein

Marie Glitz
Matthew Shindell

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