Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Science and Technology Literacy

The 1990 World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien declared that:
The basic learning needs of youth and adults are diverse and should be met through a variety of delivery systems.
Literacy programs were call for, including for science and technology. I think many people (including me) think this was a step forward.

Since that time, projects have been developed to promote concepts of science and technology literacy, including
* UNESCO's Project 2000+

* The AAAS Project 2061
There are also standards and benchmarks for science and technology literacy, such as:
* The Project 2061 Benchmarks Online

* The ALA/ACRL/STS Information Literacy Standards for Science and Engineering/Technology
Let me modestly say, all these efforts, valuable as they are in their own contexts, seem to obscure what could be a key focus for education in the least developed nations.

Let me begin by suggesting that:
* Natural science creates/forms a body of information informing our knowledge about the natural world,

* Social and behavioral sciences create/form a body of information informing our knowledge about the social world and human behavior, and

* Technology creates/forms a body of information informing our knowledge the human-built world.
I suggest that all people need to understand their natural, social, and technological environments.

"Literacy", I think, generally implies a basic understanding. When one uses "literacy" or "numeracy" in the traditional sense, one is focusing on the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, not the literary ability of a Pulitzer Prize winning writer or the mathematical ability of a Fields Prize winning mathematician. So too, when one uses the term "technological literacy" one should not be focusing on the technological ability of a Millennium Technology Prize winner. Indeed, professional education at the university level should not be about "literacy" but about advanced levels of knowledge and skills.

Scientific and technological literacy, therefore, should be taken in part to include basic understanding of sciences and technology informing and enriching the individual's basic understanding of the world a person lives in. It goes beyond understanding, however, to include something about skills.

At the university level, there is a fundamental difference between science and technology -- a difference that I understand to have been emphasized by Harold Foecke, the distinguished former head of science and technology education for UNESCO. For the science professional, the core skill is the ability to do research, while for the professional in technology the core skill is design.

Thus engineering education seeks to enable the student to learn design skill, the electrical engineering student to design electrical systems, the civil engineering student to design civil works, the mechanical engineering student to design machines. Medical education seeks to enable the student to learn not only to diagnose disease, but to design a course of treatment to cure or ameliorate that disease.

Science education at the graduate level seeks to impart research skills, and even at the undergraduate level to understand the process of science, and how research tests hypotheses and leads to the construction of bodies of theory.

It might be worth pointing out that, for developing nations, applied research has always been favored over research not designed for application. Countries need geologists to map their mineral resources and identify siesmic risks, epidemiologists to describe the pattern of diseases and the needs for public health programs, soils scientists to identify soils resources and their problems, etc.

At the level of the most basic literacy, however, the core skill for technology is operation and maintenance. While all of us will occasional improvise a technological solution to some problem, the vast majority of people are far more involved in operating technological products or processes designed by others. At this most basic level, the core skill informed by science may well be that of diagnostic -- the identification of the a potential for gain or the cause of a problem.

One of the key advances of the science and technology literacy movement has been the recognition that there are different literacy requirements for different purposes. Thus the technological literacy needed to function as a citizen participating in democratic processes is different than that needed to function as a farmer in an economic role, or as a jury member in the legal system.

It also seems that there are even different levels of basic knowledge needed for different roles in society. The basic scientific and technological understanding required for a legislator making national energy or environmental policy is greater than for the average citizen of that nation. While we do not expect our legislators to be professionally competent in a large range of sciences and technologies, if they are to make good policy they should have sufficient understanding to demand and utilize good advice from fully trained professionals.

Science and Technology Literacy for the Poor in Poor Countries

Poor people in poor countries don't go to school much. Often only a couple of years, sometimes not at all. I would suggest it is as important to prepare the children who do go to school as much as is possible in the time available for scientific and technological literacy as it is for traditional literacy and numeracy. Indeed, being able to read, write and do arithmetic is fundamental for the continuing learning involved in scientific and technological literacy.

Science and technology literacy should be about the world in which the student really lives. Thus the natural science literacy curriculum should be about tropical biology for a student living in the tropics, about the coastal environment for a student living on the coast. So too, social science literacy should inform the student about the culture and society in which he/she lives and technological literacy should be about the technological systems that surround that specific student.

If you continue to read, write and calculate, you generally only have to learn to do so once. Unfortunately, often poor people in poor countries do not continue to read and write after they finish their few years of school. Their literacy and numeracy often decays. But for most of us, the alphabet stays the same, and the arithmetic doesn't change.

In the case of scientific and technological literacy, there is decay even if the knowledge and skill is used regularly. The natural environment changes over time, and now with increasing velocity, as environmental degradation is occurring in response to continuing increase of mankind's footprint on the earth. Moreover, people move -- from rural areas to the cities, from one workplace to another, and sometimes from country to country. So too, economic and social development is a process of social and technological change, and change that seems to be more rapid now than in the past.

Thus, I suggest, scientific and technological literacy must be maintained through a process of lifelong learning. If you only have a kid in school for a couple of years, and that kid is going to see major changes in his/her life, one better not only provide a body of basic information useful at the moment, but also learning skills, understanding of ways and places to learn more in the future, and a will toward continuing education.

This is not to underestimate the importance of providing that basic body of scientific and technological information. I think it is unfortunate when a girl or boy who is going to be a working farmer doesn't learn in schoolabout plants and their growth, or when a girl or boy who will almost certainly be a parent someday doesn't learn something not only about protecting her/his own health, but also protecting that of her/his offspring.

An urban kid should learn something about the operation and maintenance of machines. Similarly, a rural kid should learn about operation and maintenance of machines. The machines will probably be different, and the urban kid may need to know about electrical machines while a rural area may not have electricity. It may be useful to teach kids things known to the ancient Greeks -- about simple machines such as levers and pulleys. (It tends to annoy me when people assume that science and technology literacy is about rockets and space, which have little to do with day to day life, and not about how to lift heavy objects and friction which are important to us all.)

I suggest that teaching scientific and technological literacy for kids who will not be in school much and who live in poor nations is very challenging. It is sad that the schools for the poor in poor nations are (not surprisingly) poorly equipped to do so. The teachers are poorly prepared themselves, and face huge classes who often are poorly equipped to learn for many, well known reasons.

Curriculum developers are few in number in poor nations, and probably too often lacking in the necessary understanding and skills. They are likely to develop curricula that leave too little room to adapt teaching to the natural, social, and technological environment of the school or to the learning needs of the students.

Final Remarks

I have focused in the past in this blog on higher-education for the training of scientists (especially applied scientists) and technologically-based professionals (e.g. engineers, doctors, agronomists). Fortunately, there are secondary schools that prepare students adequately to enter and take advantage of the opportunities offered by university departments of science and technology, as there are primary schools that prepare students for those secondary schools.

Programs of scientific and technological literacy, however, are also a critically important element in a national education system. The vast majority of people need to have basic understanding and skills to deal with the natural, social and technological worlds in which they find themselves; but they will never achieve professional mastery of even one area of science or technology.

Schools are a great means of starting the process of lifelong learning needed for scientific and technological literacy. The challenge confronting schools in starting the process is, I think, greatest in poor communities in poor countries.

There is a need also to institutionalize systems that support lifelong science and technology learning. The systems include vocational education and continuing opportunities for skills training and retraining. They also include popular science and technology education and communication, especially using the increasingly available electronic media. They include agriculture extension services and health education by professionals, paraprofessionals and the media.

Half the people in the world, more than three billion of them, are eking out existence on less than two dollars a day in income (including in-kind income). It is too bad that the thinking about scientific and technological literacy too often leaves them out. It is not that there is not a need to improve the systems of lifelong learning and skilling for the richer half of the world -- goodness knows they need improvement. But in comparison far too little has been done for the half the world who could most benefit from better knowledge, understanding and skills.


John Daly said...

Bob Maybury has allowed me to publish this comment he sent me originally by email. (My thinking about science and technology literacy was triggered by a stimulating presentation he made last night in a class at George Washington University):

"Many thanks for sending me your blog today with your comments on scientific and technological literacy. I am happy you found my effort yesterday helpful and stimulating.

"Your commentary is also very helpful to me and I wish time had permitted you to make such comments yesterday in the class, for I know we all are hoping this AU effort will prove useful to the graduate students who have elected to follow the course.

"I fully agree with your comment that the responses to Jomtien - Project 2000+ and Project 2061, etc., as valuable as they are, seem to obscure what could be a key focus for education in the least developed countries. So you then attempt to illustrate what scientific and technological literacy could be for these poor countries.

"I agree that literacy for them should be more closely connected to the realities of life in those countries - their trees, flowers, plants and animal life, - - their absence of electricity and machines - - etc., But this still misses a critical point of Foecke's way of differentiating between science and technology. I refer to his statement that while few citizens in daily life engage in scientific research, virtually everyone is frequently involved in the processes of decision-making and problem-solving which are at the heart of technology.

"In my judgment, we are mistaken (I feel actually confused) when we say that it is science that we need to draw on in our everyday need to cope with life's decisions and problems. No, it is the design mode of behaving ( the way technology deals with these) that is what we should be following.

"See, we tend to focus on the products of the design approach - - the physical machines and objects - - rather than on the process that the design approach follows - - in particular, facing our problem to be solved , or decision to be made, with a full awareness of the relevant constraints - - and then selecting the most appropriate solution from among those that we see as possible. This kind of behavior is really right down at the level of every day living, but because we associate design so much with the machines and other physical objects of the technology world, we tend to overlook this very everyday-like aspect of design and hence we miss acknowledging it as the really significant reason for striving for technological literacy as a goal of education even in the very poorest countries, let alone in our own country and in our own lives.

"Let's keep this discussion going and maybe you and I should get Harold Foecke and my friend Cary Sneider at the Museum of Science involved in exploring this further."

John Daly said...

Bob wrote:

"In my judgment, we are mistaken (I feel actually confused) when we say that it is science that we need to draw on in our everyday need to cope with life's decisions and problems. No, it is the design mode of behaving (the way technology deals with these) that is what we should be following."

I agree that technology is important, but I suggest that it is more important for most poor people in developing nations to have a basic understanding of the technological systems that surround them, to be able to operate and maintain the technological products and processes that they use, and to know where to get good technological information and advice when they need it, than to be able to "design" technologies. I don't deny that the ability to create devices and processes to solve problems is important, but it is less important in my estimation than the technological capabilities I have outlined.

For poor people in poor countries, common knowledge is all too often wrong. That is why I believe that traditional and local knowledge should be more often informed by scientific and more modern technological knowledge.

Poor people in poor countries should have a better understanding of why they get sick, and how to stay healthy. They should have a better understanding of why their crops and animals get sick, and how to help them grow better. They should have a better understanding of the resources in their environment, and how to utilize and sustain them.

Poor people would often be better if their understanding of their culture, society, economy and polity were informed not only by traditional and local sources, but also more often by information drawn from the social and behavioral sciences.

John Daly said...

For those who don't know him, Bob Maybury is the Executive Director of the International Organization for Chemistry and Development. He did science and technology policy in the World Bank and the UNESCO regional office for Africa. He was in the science education team at UNESCO for some years, running the Chemistry curriculum development project in Asia. He had a career as a university professor of Chemistry even prior to that.

Frank Method is now a Senior Advisor, Education Policy and Systems Group, RTI International. He used to run the UNESCO Washington office, and was the lead education policy guru at USAID for some decades. He also was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and has worked in more than 20 countries.

John Daly said...

Frank Method asked me to post this comment that he made via an email, when I told him it would be of general interest:

"What I would add is the following, which is not in disagreement with your distinctions of science and technology, knowledge and skill sets vs. applications, or the roles of education (and the sadly inadequate preparation most students get at the primary and secondary levels) in preparing for advanced education and preparation for science and technology-based careers.

· Along with the distinction between science and technology, one leading to theory and knowledge of applicable theories and bodies of knowledge and the other to designs and problem solutions is the divergence of opinion and advocacy from science and technology taught as subjects and trained as specific skill sets to what came to be labeled science and technology literacy.

· The former is the essential foundation, as you articulate below, for further education and training in the sciences and in technology applications. The latter refers more to the capabilities of others in their respective roles to live and work in a society influenced increasingly by science (in its many forms, including the social sciences, economics . . .) and the applications in diverse forms.

· 'Literacy' in this sense refers to much more than coding and decoding, understanding the basic knowledge, taxonomies and vocabularies, 'how things work' and how the scientific process works.

· 'Literacy' also includes attitudes toward science – is new knowledge to be feared or embraced, what can/should be taken on faith and what needs to be proved, how do we know what we know, how does the average person keep from drowning in the flood of information and advocacy coming from the "experts" . . . and many similar questions and the competencies needed to answer such questions effectively.

· This sense of S&T literacy then becomes part of life skills

· These life skills empower the individual as much as their formal education informs them – at least that is their intent.

· UNESCO has tried to address these through a proliferation of quasi-science education programs such as education for sustainable development, projects on rural education, a variety of NFE and adult education programs. The basic problem is that moving science education into the education sector has meant that the educators have defended the literacy and other basic and adult education programs more than the science that is supposed to be embedded in these programs.

· Some of this literacy is distributed knowledge, and the relationship of the individual to the group/community, the "wisdom of the commons" if not of the crowd.

· Other forms include connected knowledge, across disciplines and multiple ways of "knowing"

· Some of this involves skepticism – the farmer who needs to ask questions before committing to new crops or new fertilizers and hybrid seeds promoted by the "experts" The individual being told that 8 out of 10 doctors recommend this treatment needs to be confident enough to ask why they should take anything that 2 out of 10 doctors don't recommend.

· Other S&T literacy may lead to more proactive attitudes and behaviors toward problem-solving by average people than by the scientists and technologists. People need a basis for their decisions, but for most the "80 percent" rule is sufficient. People learn to listen to the experts debating whether the earth is cooling or warming and at some point say enough debate, we clearly are using resources foolishly, fouling our environment, killing the fish, choking our highways, fouling our beaches . . . and it is time to stop and think about what we are doing and see if there aren't better ways. The S&T communities may be needed to find those ways, but the basic judgment of people with some understanding of cause and effect is that there is a problem to be solved.

"About the same time as Foecke, Maybury and the others [Bob – you need to write this history of the who's who and the roles they played in shaping the international science education initiatives and policies/priorities over these decades – most of these were familiar names but I had never heard them put in context or in a timeline or in their relationships to others] were drawing the distinctions between science and technology, knowledge and theory versus design and application, there was a more general process of challenging the purposes of education, and of 'development' itself. Was it more about learning what one needed to know to join the modern society, become integrated in the world economy, become credentialed and accepted in the cultures and societies dominated by the metropoles . . . or was it about transforming societies at home, creating new realities, building new countries and doing so with more respect for local knowledge and values? Some of this went overboard and became self-destructive searches for radical forms of non-formal education and Freirian concientization and African socialism, Ujamaa education, critical literacy/critical theory and praxis, post-modernism and other movements which were often hostile to established knowledge systems. We lost at least a decade of education progress thrashing about with a search for alternative pedagogies and theories of knowledge that could be translated into mass education systems. A good example of this thinking (source doesn't matter – many similar examples out there) is 'pedagogies always produce specific forms of practical competency -- literacies -- that for the most part have been pressed into the service of the dominant culture. This situation occurs because of the ways in which knowledge is inscribed in the social: certain linguistic competencies, forms of narrative address, and signs of ideological solidarity are privileged over others'"

John Daly said...

Good posting Frank!

I agree, that if not taken too far, the distinction between explicit knowledge and skills is useful, especially when one adds in the tacit knowledge that must be conveyed in developing scientific and technological literacy.

Great point that literacy includes attitudes towards S&T. Or perhaps, it is simply that those positive attitudes you suggest have to be inculcated if lifelong learning is to enable the person to cope with changing natural, social and technological conditions.

I would go further to suggest that one needs to deal at the emotional level as well -- to help people feel the joy of learning. And the moral and ethical levels, transferring the ethos that keeps most scientists honest and most engineers concerned about the impacts of their work on other people.

If people are reading this dialog, they should be now be seeing why scientific and technological literacy is political dynamite! It is getting at the most fundamental values of society. If one can really help a major portion of the half of the world who are poor users of local and traditional knowledge become significantly more scientifically and technologically literate, then the institutions of their culture and society will be fundamentally challenged.

I also agree that the history of the scientific and technological literacy movement must be understood in terms of the larger movements in international education. I would go further, and suggest that they must be understood in terms of larger movements in international development, such as decolonization, the cold war, the basic human needs movement, and the Washington Concensus. Indeed, I doubt that it will be fully understood unless seen in terms of the development successes of the Green Revolution, the miracle of the Asian dragons, globalization, the failure of African nations to develop economically for decades, and the Information Revolution.

While more understanding will help to improve the situation, fortunately, practitioners can do a lot to develop better S&T literacy programs for the poor majority now with the information and understanding at hand. The ideal is the enemy of the good!