The innate curiosity of children leads them to ask scientific questions early on: Why is the sky blue? Why did dinosaurs go extinct? What is fire? Straightforward answers to those questions inevitably lead to other questions. This is the essence of science: you never run out of questions to ask.
Our global competitiveness is heavily dependent on science: half of the economic growth in the past century has derived from scientific innovation (Pakes and Sokoloff 1996). Yet our system of public education produces high school graduates that fare poorly in global competition for math and science skills, and who are often ill-prepared for college-level work. Under-resourced schools, ill-prepared science teachers, and sociological / psychological discouragement in the teen years all have been implicated.(Rising Above the Gathering Storm Committee (U.S.), National Academy of Sciences (U.S.) et al. 2010, National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (U.S.). Committee on Strengthening Science Education through a Teacher Learning Continuum., Wilson et al. 2015).
Legislators and policy makers have acknowledged the disconnect between our economy’s need for skilled scientists and the dismal state of science education. At the federal level, the US Department of Education has strongly urged states to adopt the Common Core, which sets proficiency standards for grades K-8. However, because public education is the province of local communities, the Common Core has become a lightening rod for political discussion. Within each state, standards for science education have been set, with final development of curricula and standards devolving to communities. Science and math teaching from kindergarten though high school, then, is regulated at a variety of levels, with primary responsibility held by local school boards.
This is the Achilles heel of public education in the US: while local control has many advantages and is reinforced by our Constitution, it has led to a patchwork of math and science standards, funding models, and curriculum structure across the country. Local politics can influence science standards, notably on topics such as evolution and climate change.
In addition to science taught in schools, many children learn science via science museums, television programming, after-school clubs, service organizations like scouting, and the like. Those venues certainly stoke interest in science, and have become increasingly important. Yet access to such opportunities is not universal (Fenichel, Schweingruber et al. 2010), reinforcing socio-economic gaps in science education across schools.
Students entering higher education therefore are extremely heterogeneous in terms of their preparation and readiness for college-level math and science. Community colleges have accepted remedial classwork as part of their missions, while four-year schools have increasing dropped remedial classes from their listings. For student majoring in a science, curricula are developed with reference to standards set by professional science societies, accrediting agencies, and college/university faculty. In addition, most four-year schools have a science requirement for all students, which typically can be met by special courses for non-majors (Physics for Poets, Rocks for Jocks). These courses are less rigorous than those taken by science majors, and typically focus on the scientific method itself. The goal of “non-majors” courses is to ensure that all college graduates can make informed decisions about societal issues that arise from or involve science. The state of our national discourse strongly suggests that goal has not yet been achieved.
The science literacy movement seeks to engage all citizens in the scientific process. In addition to formal and informal education opportunities, this movement enlists citizens themselves in the scientific endeavor, where by collecting data on rainfall in backyards, doing bird counts for the Audubon Society, or scanning sky charts for anomalies. Adults invested in the scientific enterprise can influence policymakers and legislators when scientists themselves cannot (Lanzenotti and Folger 2000).
It is important to keep in mind that, even with overwhelming scientific evidence on an issue, many people choose to discount that evidence. The disconnect between rational thought and individual decisions (Kahan, Peters et al. 2012) has increased within the US even as we have become more technologically reliant. Disagreements on climate change, fracking, vaccinations, endangered species, et al. will remain with us for the foreseeable future, no matter how sophisticated our science education system becomes. Thus fostering a polite and respectful environment for public discourse will prove as important as understanding science.
For further reading:
Fenichel, M., H. A. Schweingruber and National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Science Education. (2010). Surrounded by science : learning science in informal environments. Washington, DC, National Academies Press.
Kahan, D. M., E. Peters, M. Wittlin, P. Slovic, L. L. Ouellette, D. Braman and G. Mandel (2012). "The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks." Nature Climate Change 2(10): 732-735.
Lanzerotti, L.J. and P.Folger. 2000. "Citizen scientists." EOS Transactions of th America Geophysical Union. 81 (27): 301.
National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (U.S.). Committee on Strengthening Science Education through a Teacher Learning Continuum., S. M. Wilson, H. A. Schweingruber and N. Nielsen (2015). Science teachers' learning : enhancing opportunities, creating supportive contexts. Washington, DC, the National Academies Press.
Pakes, A. and K. L. Sokoloff (1996). "Science, technology, and economic growth." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 93(23): 12655-12657.
Rising Above the Gathering Storm Committee (U.S.), National Academy of Sciences (U.S.), National Academy of Engineering. and Institute of Medicine (U.S.) (2010). Rising above the gathering storm, revisited : rapidly approaching category 5. Washington, DC, National Academies Press.