America needs more science and technology literacy

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From extreme weather to vaccines to remote learning and virtual working, science and technology (S&T) underpins daily life. But only 22 percent of high school graduates are proficient in science, according to the U.S. Department of Education, illustrating the S&T knowledge gap in many Americans.

This is not a new phenomenon. While “reading, writing, and arithmetic” have had deserved educational priority for hundreds of years, S&T has not. Meanwhile, the sustained rise of S&T in all aspects of life over the last several decades has resulted in an ever-increasing gulf between those with proficiency — and those without.

Today S&T is embedded not just in jobs, but even in applying for them. Employment in restaurants, ride share companies, journalism, the health professions, K-20 teaching, and myriad other occupations have embedded S&T. Health and medicine are increasingly complex at the consumer level — how and where to find the best information when it comes to making health decisions is often not straightforward. Stronger grounding in S&T would provide a more sound foundation for success in our work and personal lives.

What should we do to raise the S&T baseline for Americans?

Of course, we need to strengthen K-12 and undergraduate curricula with respect to S&T. Indeed, “Call to Action for Science Education,” a recent report of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine places a spotlight on making science education a national priority.

But, beyond schools and the workplace, what can be done? With some innovative thinking grocery stores, sporting and other entertainment venues, restaurants, shopping malls, gas stations, train stations, bus stops, and other everyday places could be leveraged to increase S&T proficiency. These spaces could provide facts or help people understand “how stuff works” in bite-sized pieces. These bite-sized pieces would need to be compelling, entertaining, and memorable, while at the same time providing real and relevant scientific or technological information.

For example, grocery stores and restaurants could educate consumers on the food supply chain. A highway rest area could provide an exhibit on how cars consume fuel and the consequent environmental impact, with comparisons to other modes of transportation. Libraries and pharmacies could have exhibits and discussions on how vaccines are developed, produced, and authorized for public use. In short, our lives are on track to become ever more dependent and intertwined with S&T. While many people will not become scientists or engineers, increased understanding of S&T will be even more necessary to navigate daily life.

Perhaps even more important than broadening public access to valid information is ensuring that Americans have S&T literacy. We must strengthen people’s skills when it comes to learning about new technologies and applications, both their upsides and downsides. Increasingly, people will need to be able to ask tough, relevant questions and understand the answers as they assess the latest innovations and their impacts.

Most fundamental to S&T literacy are the skills one needs to assess whether information is valid or not. S&T advances now enable access to information from a multitude of sources, from the most valid to the least — and everything in-between. Anyone can use large online platforms and publish information. The ability to assess information critically in a digital world — digital literacy — is paramount for S&T proficiency. There are institutions, notably libraries, engaged in digital literacy, but these efforts need more robust support and expansion.

Public policy initiatives could greatly advance public understanding of S&T issues as well as S&T literacy. Local, state, and federal governments, professional organizations, corporations, and the philanthropic sector could fund efforts to bolster this understanding. These entities and other high-profile actors could use the bully pulpit to encourage efforts to advance S&T awareness and learning. Scientists and engineers engaged in such efforts should be accorded better professional recognition.

Policy makers must act to mitigate the growing S&T divide. While urgent action, such as addressing inadequate broadband access is needed to close the basic digital divide, we must also strengthen digital literacy and S&T proficiency. Policy makers should take such actions now, whether under the rubric of the just-enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the pending U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, federal FY23 Appropriations bills, other legislative vehicles, or through other governmental or private sector initiatives.

Alan S. Inouye, Ph.D., is senior director of public policy and government relations at the American Library Association in Washington, D.C.

Tags Digital literacy Literacy Science and technology U.S. Innovation and Competition Act

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