PREDICTION: A crisis in scientific
literacy will lead to a revitalization of
The warning signs are numerous: Many
American students post disappointing
scores on international tests in science
and math. Unable to find enough qualified science teachers, school districts
resort to hiring out-of-field instructors. Adults' general
science knowledge hasn't improved since the 1990s --
most have never heard of nanotechnology, and fewer
than half understand or accept the theory of evolution,
according to research published by the National
"This is the crisis that's facing the country," says
Bob Corcoran, president of the GE Foundation, which
has dedicated $100 million to science and math education
in five test-case school districts. "The world is not
becoming less technical and less scientific -- it's becoming
much more so. That's where the good jobs are."
Policy makers, education groups, and corporate
America are paying attention, thanks in part to
an eye-opening 2007 National Academies report.
"Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and
Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future"
warns that the United States is losing prominence in
science and technology just as those fields are becoming
increasingly vital to the global economy.
But advocates for science education say a sense
of urgency hasn't yet reached the local level; surveys
show parents are largely satisfied with the science lessons
their own children receive. "I've been saying for a
long time that we need another Sputnik," says Gerald
Wheeler, executive director of the National Science
Teachers Association. "We need a way to get the attention
of parents and local schools."
There's no shortage of big, national challenges that
have the potential to provide that dramatic Sputnik
moment; outsourcing, global warming, energy independence,
and national security all spring to mind. But
look for a wake-up call this year under more mundane
circumstances, now that under the No Child Left
Behind Act, for the first time, schools are required to
test students in science.
"We've gotten to the point where, in many cases,
science isn't even being taught, especially in the elementary
school and middle school levels, because of
the pressure to increase performance on subjects that
are tested," says Shirley Malcolm, director of education
and human resources at the American Association
for the Advancement of Science. That neglect is likely
to become disturbingly apparent on the new tests; it's
likely to be enough to inspire a groundswell of change
at the local level, and ultimately a seismic shift in national
Denise Kersten Wills writes from Washington, DC.
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