WHAT IS SCIENCE LITERACY AND
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

2004 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic Brown vs. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring separate educational facilities inherently unequal. Headlines in newspapers, magazines and news shows across the country focus on education and how well US students are doing or are not doing. Great emphasis is placed on education reform in school districts across the country. The mantras chanted range from “Leave no child behind” and “Every child can learn” to “School accountability” and “Measurements.” Yet amidst this interest, the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) follow-up investigations reveal that across the board, US students continue to do poorly in math and science when compared with international students. This sub-standard performance occurs in a world in which not only economic success, but overall societal prosperity is predicated more and more on its citizens’ understanding and comfort with technology. In short, education reform must include improving science literacy.

The point of a science literate society is not for everyone to readily solve physics equations or design genetically engineered organisms. Rather the goal of science literacy is the universal capacity of our citizens to read an article in their daily newspaper about global warming, for example, understand it, critically assess what it means to their lives and what steps they should take as individuals. Similarly, jobs ranging from hairdressers, licensed vocational nurses and workers in a semi-conductor factory need a general knowledge of pH and acid/base chemistry. Problem solving and critical thinking, the most important aspect of science literacy, is key to daily life. Whether one is a politician, automobile mechanic, schoolteacher, secretary or aerospace engineer, it is important to “think your way through the work day.”