It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was a child growing up in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. As a youngster of only two-and-a-half, I distinctly remember being taken outside with my mom and dad, my uncle, aunt, cousin and grandmother all standing around the yard with even a few neighbors waiting for something. It was a starry night and suddenly my uncle cried out, “There it is!” and pointed to the sky. Approaching from the southwest was a moving star, a satellite known as Explorer 1, the first U.S. made object to orbit our little world.
That’s one of my earliest memories, and yet the recollection seems as clear as if it were a recent thing. It would be another year or two before we’d have our own television set and years more before I’d begin to understand how fast things were changing. Saturdays spent watching Commander Cody fly around with his rocket backpack were my favorite pastime. In the first grade my fellow students and I were crowded into a classroom with the only TV in Liberty Elementary School to watch Alan Shephard ride a tongue of flame skyward as the first American astronaut.
My grandparents had been born in the late 1800’s. They had seen fantastic changes in their world in the first half of the 20th Century going from riding to town in a horse-drawn wagon to automobiles. My parents had gone from seeing travel by trains and cars to travel by planes and spacecraft. I’ve seen the birth of the Space Age and the most fantastic findings of the 1980’s and 90’s with the exploration of our solar system and the discovery of the first extra-solar planets orbiting around neighboring stars. Watching Explorer 1 from this context now “feels” like something out of the Stone Age.
Our level and pace of learning has been accelerated to near light-speed it seems, and yet students of today’s society are still unclear about what the scientific method is. The majority of students don’t understand what an important role science and mathematics plays in our daily lives as is evidenced by American math and science scores compared to other countries around the world. How far can we expect to go in the 21st Century without helping our young students truly understand how everything in the universe is interconnected?
That was then….This is now
This protracted personal history might also dredge up similar memories for some of you. We live in a remarkable time, yet at the pace we’re going, what is high technology today will also become ancient history faster than ever before, too. It is inconceivable to me that American students are on par with any other children in the world in math and science scores when they’re in the 4th grade yet fall to nearly last place in the world by their college years in those same subjects. If we can’t find the reasons for this soon, we should not expect to be the world leader in technology for very long. Some other country that has the edge in math and science scores will become the world leaders and our youth will grow up to work for them. Understanding is the key. A deep and true understanding is the only way to win this new “War on Ignorance” and that is how we should confront this problem. See it as, fear it as, and fight it as a war against ignorance.
In a Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Public Interest Report for Jan/Feb 2002, author Jon D. Miller presents his case in an article “Civic Scientific Literacy: A Necessity in the 21st Century”. Miller points out that “The economic need for and value of a scientifically literate populace are well known. Science and technology have had a pervasive impact on both the methods of production and the products that are manufactured.” Modernization of existing manufacturing techniques has in many cases been completely automated, and the products that are manufactured are becoming more and more targeted at consumers who are scientifically literate.
Miller continues, “A strong technologically-based economy in the 21st century will require that a substantial portion of the consuming populace be scientifically literate”. This need is already being seen in the way government works, where “Over recent decades, the number of public policy controversies that require some scientific or technical knowledge for effective participation has been increasing”. What does it mean then, to be “scientifically literate”? Miller gives us some examples by citing the historical term for literacy as “[someone] who could read or write their own name”. More recently the term has grown to include someone who “can read a bus schedule, a loan agreement, or the instructions on a bottle of medicine” as defined by Hartman (1970) and later by Resnick and Resnick (1977). At the time of these studies it was estimated that about 10% of Americans were scientifically literate, and the numbers today are nearly double at 17%. A study by Miller in 1998 sought to define citizens as “scientifically literate” if they could “1) ….understand basic scientific concepts and constructs, such as the molecule, DNA, and the structure of the solar system, 2) …understand…the nature and process of scientific inquiry, and 3) [if they practiced] a pattern of regular information consumption.” Translated into simpler terms, a person could be considered as a “civic scientifically literate” individual if they have “the level of concept vocabulary and process understanding…required to read most of the articles in the Tuesday science section of the New York Times, watch and understand most episodes of Nova, or read and understand many of the popular science books sold in bookstores today”.
The very fact that things are changing at an ever-increasing pace demands that the US do a better job helping American students at the elementary and secondary levels better understand the importance of scientific literacy. Complacency and apathy is the enemy in the “War on Ignorance”, and we should not be accepting of the fact that more than 80% of the people in the US “…cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times”.
What AOAS Plans to Do
By acquiring the funding for a portable planetarium and science program to be freely offered to area schools, AOAS will fill at least three needs by:
1) Substituting expensive and dangerous “field trips” to planetariums in Little Rock or Oklahoma City with similar equipment and experienced instructors at the individual schools, and
2) Bringing many tools for more effective presentation of scientific concepts which individual schools can not afford to buy on their own, and
3) Establishing a professional grade facility and advanced observing programs to assist with and expand the above offerings.
AOAS has the experience and we seek the funding to make these dreams a reality. Other upcoming articles in the weeks and months to come will spell out more precisely what we intend to present and accomplish with these programs. It’s an exciting time for the science of Astronomy and we feel that these programs will involve area schools and their students with a more relaxed atmosphere and better environment for learning to a point of true understanding. That is our battle plan in our “War on Ignorance”. That is why we care about improving our area student’s math and science scores.
Hartman, D. 1970. Illiteracy: An Overview. Harvard Educational Review, 40: 226-30
Resnick, D.P., and Resnick, L.B. 1977, The Nature of Literacy: An Historical Exploration. Harvard Educational Review 47: 370-85
Miller, J.D. 1998. The Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy: Public Understanding of Science, 7: 1-21