Why science literacy isn’t just important for scientists

Within the last 20 years we have gone from interacting with information by tediously sifting through thousands of pages of text at our local libraries to instantly accessing information whenever we want it, wherever we are.  We take this information at face value and seemingly put all of our trust in the first Google hit that we get in response to our search query.  While our increasing access to information is assuredly transforming our world for the better, information assimilated without understanding or review can quickly lead us to false paradigms that are difficult to change. 

One case that has been especially noteworthy involved the 1998 report by Dr. Andrew Wakefield stating the negative impacts of pediatric vaccinations.  Although the data supporting this study was proven to be falsified, the study was discredited and Dr. Wakefield’s medical license was subsequently revoked, the public opinion about vaccinating children has been harmed immensely.  Recently, a group of pediatricians in Chicago has taken a stand against these false accusations because there has been a marked increase in both the rate of parents seeking vaccination waivers and the rate of preventable diseases, especially measles.  The lack of science literacy in this highly technological and scientific age no longer just affects research scientists and academics but everyone from age 1 to 100.

Multiple programs are being developed to address this issue that focus on developing curiosity and appreciation for science as a means of encouraging further research into issues instead of accepting them at face value.   The inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival held in October 2010 was “all about exciting kids and the general public about the wonders of science and engineering while inspiring the next generation of innovators.”  By encouraging young people to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers you are also able to cultivate skills in analytical thinking and problem solving as well as create discerning thinkers able to assimilate the ready-supply of information.  

This focus on better understanding of science principles is being supported from a funding perspective as well.  U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan recently introduced legislation for increased STEM funding through the Innovation Inspiration School Grant Program Act in which teachers would receive more hands-on training in exciting high-tech and emerging areas of science and engineering that translate better to the younger generation.  The first, and likely most important, step in fostering effective STEM education is getting students excited about the subject matter.  Once this is achieved, doors are opened for teachers to prepare accessible minds with not only the principles of science and math but also cultivate critical thinking and overall science literacy.  

See the following links for more information on the need for increased science literacy and the new approaches being used to address it:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-bock/why-science-literacy-matters_b_889550.html?view=print

http://www.latimes.com/health/ct-x-0706-vaccine-refusal-20110706,0,7407793.story

http://www.usasciencefestival.org/

http://www.vindy.com/news/2011/jul/06/building-blocks/?print

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070218134322.htm

http://www.actionbioscience.org/newfrontiers/hazen.html

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