- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

NEW YORK Can a nation debate the merits of cloning when just fewer than half its adults can give a decent definition of DNA?
Can it render good judgment on genetically engineered food when only a quarter can define a molecule?
And can Americans assess competing medical claims when only a third show a good understanding of the scientific process?
Experts see cause for concern in the latest report card on American scientific understanding. But they aren't surprised.
Like many people, Shirley M. Malcom, head of education for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has seen "Tonight" show host Jay Leno's quiz of people on the street.
Mr. Leno broke the news about the new study to his audience recently:
"Here's something shocking. According to a study by the National Science Foundation, 70 percent of Americans do not understand science. Here's the sad part: 30 percent don't even know what 70 percent means."
That second statistic is only a joke. But the NSF did report that a survey of American adults turned up these low numbers:
45 percent could define "DNA," the substance carrying the inherited genetic code.
22 percent could define "molecule," the basic unit of a chemical compound.
45 percent knew lasers don't work by focusing sound waves. Lasers use light waves.
48 percent knew electrons are smaller than atoms.
48 percent knew it's not true that the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs and humans missed each other by some 60 million years. But "we're interviewing people on the phone who grew up watching ['The Flintstones]," said Melissa Pollak, senior analyst at the foundation.
Americans did better on some other questions. Ninety-four percent knew cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, for example, and about three-quarters knew that some radioactivity is naturally produced, that continents are moving, and that light travels faster than sound.
The survey's margin of error is 3 percent.
Poor results are nothing new
In its current form, the survey has been given every two years since 1979, and the results overall haven't changed much, Miss Pollak said.
"It's discouraging," she added. "We'd hope people would know more than they seem to know about some basic science facts and concepts."
If it's any consolation, the United States did slightly better than 14 other industrialized countries in the early 1990s, ranking about equal to Denmark and the Netherlands, Miss Pollak said.Her quick look at new survey data suggests this country is still somewhat ahead, she said.
Mr. Leno's joke about percentages was based on the finding that only about a third of the survey participants showed a good understanding of the scientific process, including ideas about probability and how to do an experiment.
But some see reason for hope in survey results produced over the years. Jon Miller of Northwestern University, who directed the survey from 1979 to 1999, has his own index of scientific literacy. It includes an understanding of scientific process plus vocabulary.
By that gauge, "the trend in the last decade has been very encouraging," he said, with science literacy growing from 10 percent in 1988 to 17 percent in 1999. He hasn't calculated the number for the new survey.
Mr. Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communication at Northwestern's medical school, found in 1997 that Americans scored higher on science literacy than Europeans, the Japanese or Canadians.
That's probably unchanged, he said.
That brings up another question: Since most Americans aren't scientists, why should anybody care how they do in a survey such as this?
What bothers Miss Pollak the most is the finding that only about a third of adults showed a good understanding of the scientific process.
"This is where science can benefit people in their daily lives," Miss Pollak said. People get bombarded with assertions by psychics and medical quacks, she said, and if they don't understand critical thinking and scientific evidence, they can waste time and money.
That understanding also helps the public confront scientific political issues where the media are often content to present both sides of an argument, no matter which side has better evidence, said Miss Malcom of the AAAS.
"How is one to discern the difference between an argument which is fairly weak and one which is fairly strong?" she said. "Who is pulling your leg, and who is telling you the straight poop, and on what basis?"
Moreover, experts say, as technology spreads through the nation's jobs, workers will have to be able to use it and the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that should be learned in science classes.
Competing in global economy
There's another, related concern. How will the United States provide a sufficient supply of qualified workers for careers in science and technology? Nowadays, the nation is leaning heavily on foreign help.
At Human Genome Sciences Inc. of Rockville, only about half the workers with the highest levels of technical skill were born in the United States, estimates Chief Executive Officer William Haseltine.
More broadly, foreign workers are "indispensable," Mr. Haseltine says.
"We could not function in our government laboratories, in our academic laboratories and in our industrial laboratories without these workers," Mr. Haseltine says. "I would guess we would drop in productivity by about 50 percent or more. We simply don't train enough [American] people."
In fact, about 10 percent of the American work force in biotechnology including drug companies are foreign nationals who hold an "H-1B" visa that lets them work here temporarily, said Steve Dahms, who chairs the work force committee of the U.S. Council of Biotechnology Centers.
Their importance goes beyond the 10 percent figure, he said.
"In terms of the overall process of drug development and commercialization, the areas [of expertise] these people represent lie at the very heart of the most critical work force needs," Mr. Dahms said.
And there just aren't enough American college graduates with the right skills to fill those jobs, he added.
The NSF reports that as of 1999, about a quarter of all U.S. workers holding a doctorate in science or engineering were foreign-born. Forty-five percent of computer science and engineering doctorates were foreign-born. For biological sciences, it was 27 percent.
Some observers are queasy about the future supply of foreign expertise.
"You can't depend on it," Mr. Haseltine says. "As economic conditions improve abroad, it's less likely these foreign workers will come to the United States. We've already seen some reverse brain drain, back to China, back to Europe, back to Germany in particular," by people who have gotten years of training in the United States.
What's more, the allotted number of the H-1B visas is scheduled to be cut sharply next year, Mr. Dahms said.
Developing good teachers
The obvious response, Mr. Haseltine and others say, is to produce more Americans with science and engineering expertise.
So, if it's up to this country, how does it increase Americans' understanding of science? The real engine, experts say, is the schoolroom.
Nancy Ridenour, science department leader at Ithaca High School in Ithaca, N.Y., tells the story of two kindergarten teachers she visited. Each presented the class with a large water pool that contained a toy boat.
One teacher asked, "What do you think would make this boat move?" Students suggested they could blow on it, squirt water on it or simply push it. Then the teacher said, "Show me."
When the other teacher presented the same basic setup to her class, she simply said, "Here are some straws. Blow on the boat and see if it moves."
For the students, "there were two different experiences," Miss Ridenour says.
The first approach, which invited children to think rather than just follow instructions, teaches critical thinking through the process of inquiry, she said. That's one way Miss Ridenour and others recommend to help children learn more about science.
It has to start early. Around fourth or fifth grade "you go into the valley of the shadow" where pupils turn off to science and math unless they've experienced good classroom material, chances to explore the topic and "teachers who love the subject," said Judith Ramaley, who works with the NSF's education and human resources section.
The foundation plans to spend about $1 billion during the next five years for its third generation of efforts over the past decade to improve science and math teaching, Miss Ramaley said.
Among its priorities is better training in those subjects for teachers. "It's very clear that teachers matter, and their knowledge of subject matter content is critical," Miss Ramaley said.
Currently, many who teach math or science don't have backgrounds in those subjects, she said. The foundation reported in 2000 that 31 percent of math teachers and 20 percent of science instructors who teach in grades seven to 12 lack a major or minor in their subjects.
But better training before teaching doesn't solve another problem. Within five years of starting a teaching career, nearly half of urban math and science teachers leave the classroom, said Harold Pratt, immediate past president of the National Science Teachers Association. They would stick around more if they had inducements like more mentoring, better teaching assignments and chances to take classes and seminars, he said.
Miss Ramaley emphasized that teachers also need to be paid more and "treated as professionals" with more say in what and how they teach.
Another priority among experts is good classroom materials, not just textbooks, but kits and other ways of teaching the big ideas in math and science, Miss Ramaley said. In a sixth-grade classroom she visited recently, for example, she saw the concept of momentum taught through a kit that involved toy people falling out of a car when it hit a block.
Older children "don't particularly get excited by a textbook," Miss Ramaley said, "they get excited by exploring the ideas, by a teacher who loves the subject and by a chance to see how those ideas can make a difference in their own lives."
Miss Malcom, of the AAAS, says it's also important to get colleges to convince their students that math and science are important parts of a well-rounded education.
People from other disciplines often don't seem to think so, she said.
"I would be ashamed if I didn't know anything about literature or political science, or psychology or things like this, as a person who's supposedly liberally educated," she said. "And yet others think nothing about saying, 'I don't know anything about science and mathematics.'"
Miss Malcom and others say people certainly are capable of learning about science. Her office develops science materials for people with poor general literacy. "Our experience has been if you help them understand the significance of the topic and provide the information at a level they can engage with it, that they are very engaged," she said.
So the idea "that somehow people can't connect, I don't accept that. They haven't failed me yet."
Mr. Miller, at Northwestern, says that people who get a good foundation in the classroom are poised to learn even more through the Internet.
"We are going to be in a period where adults who wish to know something and have a foundation of knowledge are going to be able to get that information quicker, at a higher quality and at less cost than ever in the history of humans," he said.
And the same technology should let a growing class of scientifically literate people take more control of science-related government debates by bombarding legislators with e-mail, he said.
If science literacy rises to 25 percent of the adult population in the next decade, Mr. Miller said, that means about 50 million people, going by the numbers today.
And that, he says, will catch the attention of Capitol Hill.


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