Science on the Web (5)

[May 23, 2011] 

Helping even a large majority of Americans become scientifically literate is an incremental process. For starters, you have to sell the idea that scientific literacy offers tangible benefits.

Reaching that milestone, however, is meaningless, unless you also build an infrastructure enabling easy access to training materials and frequent updates. Even if we agree that digital space is the ideal medium to promote science literacy, there appears to be no off-the-shelf solution to designing and building that infrastructure.

The phrase “science education” is, after all, a complex, multilayered topic, that must fulfill many different functions. For my purposes, professional training in a scientific discipline is not one of those functions. Given that, a preliminary agenda might look like this:

• Education for children and teens
• Education for adults
• Education for educators
• Education as topical overview
• Education as global impact study
• Education as a background reference for the law

And as the impact of globalization continues to be felt, it’s clear we also need an understanding of the social sciences. Ideology aside, an administration better versed in non-Western worldviews would never have created the quagmire we now face in the Middle East. Nor would voters conversant with social and cultural anthropology have ever accepted the ridiculous assertion that our troops would be greeted with flowers in Iraq.

Access denied.
Let’s start by assessing the tools we already have. Here again, a search engine proves an inefficient way to access and assess digital resources. Fact is, you’ll get better results by subscribing to StumbleUpon and choosing “Science” as one of your search options. It led me (with persistence) to a large collection of materials entitled “Harvard Natural Sciences Lecture Demonstrations.”

The site offers reassuring proof that forces of nature can be described and demonstrated with relatively simple means. Yet, effective as they are on their own terms, demonstrations like these—or like the simplified map of the human brain presented by The Times of London—are intended merely to exemplify, not teach the scientific thought process. Even if such presentations were enough to promote science literacy on their own, simply finding them taxes the nerve endings of even the most obsessive-compulsive personality.

Idling ideologues.
Now, if we believe that improving science literacy in America begins with children, the path to success is no clearer. Having put a child through the New York City public school system, I know that many of the barriers to success are systemic. At some point in the last 60 years, the focus of American education has shifted from teaching mental discipline to producing edutainment.

The seductive phrase “learning should be fun” has generated a vast complex of methodologies that do everything except teach. That’s because the valid premise behind the phrase has been tragically misapplied. The fun in learning comes after the hard work—at the moment you realize you have a new skill at your command. We’re not only depriving children of education, we’re ensuring they miss out on one of life’s most reliable pleasures.

As the pace of scientific discovery continues to raise the literacy bar, it’s time for change. We need more efficient ways to instill the values of scientific thinking. Again, the goal is not to create a society of scientists, but one whose self-image is no longer dependent on being too cool, too pious or too “intuitive” to face the social implications of the tools we depend on for our well-being.

Stepping up.
What role digital space can play in the process depends on the willingness of the scientific community and government to:

• Design and create a practical online reference center
• Create a news service to explain the social
  and political ramifications of new developments
• Promote science literacy with webinars, video 
  (including documentaries), text, etc.

It also depends on the willingness of content producers to work collaboratively with scientists. What’s needed is not mere “coverage,” but substantive discussion.

At this point, even the creation of a “WebMD” for every field of science, would be an improvement. While some of this function is already fulfilled by established magazines like Scientific American, or National Geographic they are, essentially, engaged in journalism, not education.

As I see it, the bottom line for a scientifically literate society is access at any point to reliable materials on every topic, geared to a self-identified level of comprehension. Perhaps the example set by mypyramid.gov for presenting basic concepts in nutrition offers a point of departure. Whether we should create a “myalternativeenergy.gov” or “mygenomemap.gov” to follow in its footsteps, is a question someone else will have to decide.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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