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
* The Project 2061 Benchmarks OnlineLet 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.
* The ALA/ACRL/STS Information Literacy Standards for Science and Engineering/Technology
Let me begin by suggesting that:
* Natural science creates/forms a body of information informing our knowledge about the natural world,I suggest that all people need to understand their natural, social, and technological environments.
* 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.
"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.
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.