David Kamper: ABCs of science

Wednesday, July 5, 2017 - 6:30pm

Almost every day, we wake up, roll over in our beds and turn off our alarm*. Sometimes that is in a digital clock*, but knowing our generation, it is most likely a cellphone*. After tapping the screen*, we hop out of bed and turn on the light*. We may run to the restroom, and turn on the faucet* for a glass of water. After that, we might brush our teeth with a toothbrush* and wash our face with a bar of soap*. We enter the kitchen and take the cup of coffee from the coffeemaker*. After tossing some oatmeal in the microwave*, we hop onto the internet* to read or catch up on work. After running out the door, we hop on the bus* or in our car* to start the day.

Simply in this morning routine, science research consumed our schedule. Every asterisk next to an object or concept included copious amounts of scientific understanding and countless hours of development to create the technology. Our generation has been consumed by the use of cellphones, almost as permanent attachments of our psyche. The Starbucks machines making that latte you’re drinking? Science and mathematics went into developing it. That fancy watch you’re wearing? Science and mathematics developed it. Even while we are constantly surrounded by scientific innovation, I notice that we overlook the importance of science research and development in our everyday lives. And I am not simply writing because I am in a university setting, but as an individual who observes many Americans who don’t even recognize the scientific research that they benefit from every second of their lifetimes.

The lack of awareness from many Americans on how rooted scientific research is to the American psyche demonstrates the growing issue of our scientific literacy. Science education is not only faltering in schools but also in the general public. This is creating a large part of the consumer industry that lacks regard for the hard work and complex science that went behind developing the iPhone or the car he or she drives. There are two issues to look at with regards to science literacy: science in secondary education and science in the general public.

High school science education is heavily criticized in many states. A staggering 2016 assessment found that 64 percent of high school graduates failed to meet college-readiness benchmarks in science, in a country where the benchmarks are even lower than many other countries. With poor support to science education, it should be no surprise that of the 17,000 postsecondary U.S. and Puerto Rican students, about 40 percent of those who began studying in science disciplines at the beginning of college eventually achieved a degree in that field. Even worse, among women and minorities, that number is 20 percent. Science education clearly has a perseverance problem. People are leaving science, perhaps because it is difficult, but mostly, I believe, because it has public relations issues. Large swaths of scientific community don’t know how to communicate their research to the average American citizen.

As an article published in the Washington Post states, “when Americans gets surveyed about science, we learn that they don’t know a lot about it — and then we proceed to lament how dumb they are.” Though this might be typical, the scientific perseverance and public relations problems might be due to two reasons. Firstly, secondary school science is often taught in a lecture-styled, memorize-based classroom, where trial-and-error, research-designed curricula is not emphasized. Secondly, the scientific literature and academic community is removed from the vast majority of the general public, creating a massive difference in the opinions of scientists and the public —  adding only the growing distrust of the science community in the general public.

In our nation’s high school classrooms, there has been a greater shift to develop curriculum that doesn’t simply require students to memorize the emergent truths that we have come to agree upon as a scientific community. Often, it involves allowing students to build their own models and design their experiments, developing their own understanding and coming to the same conclusions as the scientists. Scientists don’t simply sit and simply memorize; therefore students shouldn’t either. This style of active learning, however, is not being implemented in many schools across the nation . Too often, you hear students saying, “I am not a science/math person,” yet these techniques can encourage creativity and produce a more engaging subject. In addition, working with students in this manner makes them more active citizens, appreciating how the scientific community and research is integral to the American identity.

A 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science study confirmed many of the issues of the public’s science literacy. According to the survey, which looked at the opinions of both scientists and the general public, the percent difference of opinion on major scientific issues is practically night and day. While 37 percent of U.S citizens surveyed said it was safe to eat GMOs, 88 percent of the scientific community says GMOs are harmless.  Similarly, 89 percent of scientists believe it is morally OK to use animals in research, while only 47 percent of public agree. Even scarier is that 98 percent of scientists regard human evolution to exist, while only 65 percent of the public agrees. These are just a few of the significant differences between the science community and the non-science community. This divide, in my view, has created the massive lack of scientific appreciation in our country, furthering the issues in education. So how does the scientific community engage with the public? An answer may lie in politics and social outreach.

Though many have come to criticize Malcolm Gladwell for broad claims and conclusions, I do believe he is doing a great service by bringing science awareness to the public. The same can be said for Bill Nye, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson and a few more. Organizations such as 314 Action, which looks to support scientists in public office and spread scientific literacy, are crucial to changing the dialogue on science education and appreciation. These individuals and organizations are entirely necessary to address the PR problem science has and humanize the area.  Science is a part of American identity, and individuals and organizations are doing the necessary actions so that the next time you look at your cellphone, you appreciate the countless hours developing the technology and science behind its various components.

David Kamper can be reached at dgkamper@umich.edu