APS News

Viewpoint: Scientific literacy and education reform

By Warren Huelsnitz

Our nation’s economic growth, national pride, and national security, as well as continued improvements in quality of life, all require a strong investment in basic scientific research. In addition to cash, one very essential resource for the scientific community is the talented people that do the research. However, the scientific literacy of the general public is at an unacceptably low level and many people believe that physics is irrelevant, boring, and too difficult. We need to instigate a paradigm shift throughout our society in order to assure a continued stream of quality researchers and research funding into the future. The focus needs to be at the beginning, with a dramatic change in how we educate our citizens. The usual efforts to educate the public and get them excited about science, such as public outreach programs and television shows, will not solve our problems any time soon, if ever.

Many surveys and studies, including various National Science Foundation reports, indicate that the scientific literacy of the American public is disappointingly low and not improving. I don’t need everyone to understand QCD, or string theory, or how extra dimensions can solve the hierarchy problem. But it would be nice if the general public understood the scientific process and was able to use logic and reasoning. People should understand that there is a difference between having a scientific basis for something and not having one. They should be able to use logic and reasoning to debate issues and make public policy decisions that affect our lives, rather than just going with who can win a popularity contest or what their own personal beliefs and misconceptions are.

Cable TV programs on string theory, time travel, or the origin of the universe, are great. I love watching them. But these programs are just ‘preaching to the choir’. The only people watching them are those who are already interested in physics. The bulk of the public does not watch them and does not even care that they are on. Additionally, there are a significant number of great, hands-on outreach programs around the country. But these programs contact too small a subset of the population and for too brief a period of time. The end result is that we are just treading water and not making any significant breakthroughs in our nation’s scientific literacy. We need to get at the root cause of our nation’s lack of scientific literacy. To do this, we need a captive and receptive audience, one that is still impressionable, and where we have an opportunity to reach all of society. We can find this in our nation’s elementary and secondary education system.

We need to change the mentality of how math and physics are taught in elementary and secondary schools. We need to make science interesting, not just the memorization of lists or cataloging of facts. Students need to realize that there are still areas where they can make significant breakthroughs and significant contributions. We need to promote our heroes and the significance of their amazing theoretical or experimental accomplishments. But we also need to promote the “average” physicist who is having fun and doing great things so people don’t get intimidated by believing that you have to be Einstein in order to be good at physics. We need to show real people doing real science and making real breakthroughs.

To dramatically improve the scientific literacy of our nation, young students need to learn at an early age that math and science are fun and can lead to a great future. They also need to learn that being smart, working hard, and being successful are cool. To accomplish this, we are going to have to overcome a significant amount of inertia that is the status quo in our country’s public education system. Actors, musicians, and athletes are important parts of our culture, but so are scientists and engineers.

Warren Huelsnitz is Director of the Navy Nuclear Power School in Charleston, South Carolina.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff