From extreme weather conditions and vaccines to distance learning and virtual work, science and technology (S&T) underpin everyday life. But only 22 percent of high school graduates are proficient in science, according to the US Department of Education, illustrating the lack of S&T knowledge among many Americans.
It is not a new phenomenon. While “reading, writing and arithmetic” have had a 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 past decades has created a growing gulf between those who are skilled – and those who do not.
Today, S&T is embedded not only in jobs, but even in applications. Jobs in restaurants, rideshare companies, journalism, health professions, K-20 education, and a myriad of other professions have entered S&T. Healthcare and medicine are increasingly complex at the consumer level – how and where to find the best information when it comes to making healthcare decisions is often not straightforward. A stronger foundation in S&T would provide a stronger foundation for success in our work and our personal lives.
What should we do to increase the S&T baseline for Americans?
Of course, we need to strengthen kindergarten to grade 12 and junior S&T curricula. Indeed, “Call to Action for Science Education,” a recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine emphasizes the need to make science education a national priority.
But, beyond schools and the workplace, what to do? With some innovative grocery stores, sports venues and other entertainment venues, restaurants, shopping malls, gas stations, train stations, bus stops and other everyday places could be leveraged to increase sales. S&T skills. These spaces could provide facts or help people understand “how things work” in small chunks. These little pieces should be compelling, entertaining and memorable, while providing real and relevant science or technology information.
For example, grocery stores and restaurants could educate consumers about the food supply chain. A motorway rest area could provide an exhibition of how cars consume fuel and the resulting environmental impact, with comparisons to other modes of transport. Libraries and pharmacies could organize exhibitions and discussions on how vaccines are developed, produced and licensed for public use. In short, our lives are becoming more and more dependent and intertwined with S&T. Although many people will not become scientists or engineers, a better understanding of S&T will be even more necessary to navigate daily life.
What is perhaps even more important than expanding public access to valid information is to ensure that Americans have S&T knowledge. We need to build the skills of people when it comes to familiarizing themselves with new technologies and applications, both their pros and cons. Increasingly, people will need to be able to ask tough and relevant questions and understand the answers while evaluating the latest innovations and their impacts.
The skills needed to assess whether or not information is valid are the most fundamental of S&T literacy. Advances in S&T now allow access to information from a multitude of sources, from the most valuable to the least – and everything in between. Anyone can use large online platforms and post information. The ability to critically appraise information in a digital world – digital literacy – is paramount for S&T skills. There are institutions, especially libraries, committed to digital literacy, but these efforts require stronger 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, businesses, and the philanthropic sector could fund efforts to strengthen this understanding. These entities and other high-level actors could use the Intimidation Chair to encourage efforts to advance S&T awareness and learning. Scientists and engineers engaged in such efforts should receive better professional recognition.
Policy makers must act to reduce the growing S&T divide. While urgent action, such as tackling inadequate broadband access is needed to bridge the basic digital divide, we also need to strengthen digital literacy and S&T skills. Policymakers should take such action now, whether under the newly enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the ongoing U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, Federal Appropriation Bills FY23, other legislative instruments or through other government or private sector initiatives.
Alan S. Inouye, Ph.D., is sSenior Director of Public Policy and Government Relations to American Library Association in Washington, DC