Libraries and American science literacy

Ursula Goodenough writes in the blog 13.7:

Myth: The American populace is science-ignorant, lagging well behind other “developed” nations in scientific literacy.

Fact: It turns out that the U.S. curve is U-shaped: Elementary-school children perform as well in science-understanding metrics as their peers elsewhere, even though formal science teaching at these grade levels is at best sporadic, whereas middle- and high-school students perform abysmally even though they take required science courses. But American adults demonstrate scientific knowledge on a par or above adults in other “developed” countries, even though only 30 percent of adult Americans have ever taken even one college-level science course.

Although I didn’t grow up in America, this still aptly describes my experience. Scientific thinking (or, perhaps, pre-scientific thinking) was a part of my childhood; I remember long summer afternoons spent drawing detailed sketches of kid-sized, fully motorized cars, booby-trapped mansions, and many other inspired gizmos I was going to invent when I got older. Then I spent two years at a science-oriented high school, where almost all the emphasis was on memorizing facts and mastering equations — and almost none on the sheer wonder and coolness of what we were learning. As a result, whatever incipient love I might have had for science shriveled up like a raisin. I could rattle off the elements in the periodic table, and the phylum and class and genus and what-have-you of any given animal; but I had no love for that knowledge, and remained disinterested in science for years afterward.

By the time I was in America, and in college, I had turned almost exclusively to literature, and took only the bare minimum of science courses I needed to graduate. I certainly don’t regret my education in the humanities, but running away from science all that time undeniably impoverished my perspective on things. It took a viewing of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to rekindle my awareness of the mind-blowing awesomeness of the natural world. Whatever enthusiasm I have for science now, I owe almost entirely to Sagan — and, afterwards, to Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough, the American Museum of Natural History, and all the other science advocates and documentaries and exhibitions that I sought out on my own.

And this independent search for information seems to be a big part of Americans’ increased scientific literacy in adulthood. It turns out that — according to an article by John Falk and Lynn Dierking in American Scientist — most Americans don’t learn most of their science in school (a real problem that should still definitely be addressed) but rather through “informal science education” or “free-choice science learning,” which they pursue on their own time via museums, zoos, hobbies, science documentaries, science blogs, research relevant to current events or to their own personal circumstances, etc. Falk and Dierking argue that, in addition to pursuing much-needed education reform, we should also increase opportunities for adults to satisfy their curiosity about science-related issues.

Enter libraries. (Naturally.)

Goodenough talks about a wonderful initiative by the National Science Foundation “to develop free-choice STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] accessibility and interest in rural U.S. communities,” and the vital role that libraries have to play:

Persons in small towns and rural communities lack direct access to science museums or zoos or public lectures or science cafés, and home internet access, if available at all, it is via agonizingly slow dial-up connections. Happily, thanks to the largess of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, more than 98 percent of U.S. librarians now have enhanced broadband access, meaning that the local public library has rapidly become a primary destination for those seeking on-line information as well as books and videos. Indeed, in rural areas, the local library may be the “only show in town” for adult community life. The sign outside the Gilpin County Public Library in Colorado, for example, reads: “FREE COFFEE. INTERNET. NOTARY. PHONE. SMILES. RESTROOMS & IDEAS.”

Many of these libraries sponsor public book clubs, but their focus is almost solely humanities-related. […] So the NSF project being developed is basically a hybrid of a book club and a science café. Here’s the concept.

* Choose 4 STEM-related topics.
* Create three classy professionally-generated 10-minute videos on each topic.
* Identify interested rural librarians and help them locate local persons with some STEM background, where this might be a community college teacher, a forest ranger, a health professional.
* Make the videos and supporting on-line materials available to these librarians and STEM professionals, as well as selected fiction books related to each topic, so they can plan their events.
* Advertise the events to the community, encouraging but not requiring that the books be read in advance.
* Hold four 90-minute sessions wherein the videos are shown and the books and videos discussed by participants, with the STEM professionals and librarians facilitating the conversations.

How cool is that?

Very cool indeed.

I’m sure there’s a debate to be had about whether this effort goes far enough to promote “true” science literacy — in the sense of a basic understanding of the scientific process and an ability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience — but I think what’s important here is that such programs will be in a position to get good, reliable, and interesting scientific information to more people in more segments of American society. Encouraging a love for knowledge (whether scientific or any other kind), both in kids via school reform and in adults via efforts such as this, can only be a good thing.

And as always, libraries are on the job.

More details here.

(Image via Flickr)

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