Advancing Science Literacy | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 23 | p. 4 | Letters
Issue Date: June 6, 2011

Advancing Science Literacy

Department: Letters

It’s impossible to do the impossible. After listing ACS initiatives aimed at “increasing the public’s scientific literacy,” Rudy Baum ends an editorial (C&EN, April 18, page 5) by citing research indicating that “only 28% of Americans are scientifically literate.” “What is it that we’re all doing wrong?” he asks. The answer is that we’re attempting to do the impossible—creating scientific literacy with inadequate means; that is, inadequate support for science teaching.

Precollege science teachers often don’t have the equipment or the time and usually haven’t received the training that enables them to teach in a manner that produces citizens who understand how the inductive sciences advance. A middle school teacher said of a visit to her school by chemists doing demonstration-experiments and explaining them in terms of an atomic model of matter: “It’s exactly what our students need and we can’t give them.”

How might the American Chemical Society—with other scientific societies—give precollege students the gift of scientists in their science classrooms, permanently? In the same way that ACS has given undergraduate chemistry majors the gift of adequate laboratory and lecture instruction, through standards set and administered for the society by its Committee on Professional Training.

A Committee on Professional Training of Science Teachers might consider that, for citizens to understand how the inductive sciences advance—through evidence and inductions—society needs in its schools science teachers who have the equipment, time, and desire to teach from demonstration-experiments; receive salaries attractive to the top students in higher education; have had firsthand experience with passages from evidence to inductions through participation for several years in graduate-level research; and have earned an advanced degree in some area of sci ence.

It would also be beneficial if such teachers would have had a special course in science teaching that features a historical introduction of concepts, based on evidence and inductions (a feature that is increasingly missing from introductory science courses); teaching from demonstration-experiments (a vanishing skill among science teachers at all levels); and avoidance of such concepts as atomic orbitals, whose origin is shrouded in mathematical complexities that compel beginning students to accept them on faith and that create, thereby, faith-based “science” courses whose graduates lack, in the words of G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, as quoted by Baum, “an appreciation of the basic principles of science and its methodology and an understanding of what scientific research produces.”

If scientific societies don’t take a stand for such standards, who will?

Henry A. Bent

In his editorial, Baum discusses “scientific literacy.” In the last paragraph, he defines scientific literacy and then asks, “What is it that we’re all doing wrong?”

I think the problem is that most science teachers don’t really try to promote scientific literacy. Their primary goal, which is quite different, is to prepare the student for a career in their science. For example, consider that the average basic chemistry course teaches the student how to measure the volume of a gas. Few of us really need to know this. It is not a skill required for literacy in chemistry. In contrast, literacy in chemistry involves knowledge of the structure of atoms, the nature of electrovalent bonds and covalent bonds, the rules of chemical combination, and the principles governing chemical reactions.

Believe me, I am not saying that what science teachers need to do is to develop “Science for Dummies” courses. I am saying that what science teachers need to do is to go through their current courses, delete the stuff that only scientists need to know, and demand that the students learn well the stuff that an educated person ought to know, like why does the compound called CH4 exist, but not the compound CH5?

Oliver Axtel

Kudos for Baum’s editorial on scientific literacy. I think that a major contributor to the general public’s scientific illiteracy is mental apathy; many do not really give a hoot. Those who do have a serious interest in things scientific generally use sources familiar to them to maintain current knowledge.

I have long been annoyed by the general printed media’s cavalier attitude toward scientific news. In my opinion, there has always been (and maybe always will be) a seeming reluctance to check the accuracy of such news items prior to committing them to print. I have no quick fix in mind for this problem. Perhaps it will “twitter” itself to death.

Richard D. Stacy
Montrose, Colo.

I live very close to Michigan State University and have been employed there, all five of my daughters graduated from there (including one who earned her Ph.D. there), and I have been enrolled as an adult learner in the MSU Evening College. In addition, I have been offering short courses principally touching on selected historical events in the physical sciences within MSU’s Evening College over the past six years. I am one of just a few instructors who offer short courses to the greater Lansing adult community in the physical sciences.

Adults are not knocking the door down to pay a nominal fee and take my courses. This observation is further evidence of the scientific literacy question Baum introduced. I am lucky to attract six adults (the minimum enrollment criteria) for a given course at the rate of one course per academic semester. One course titled “Origins of the Quantum Theory” attracted 14 adult learners a few years ago. One adult learner in the hallway during the break asked if I would teach a course on the theory of quantum mechanics within Evening College!

I sense a great need for ACS members to reach out to the public. When I teach in MSU’s Evening College, I attempt to infuse chemistry and physics principles within a fun and uplifting context.

Paul R. Loconto
Lansing, Mich.

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