In March the Pew Research Center and the Smithsonian Institution teamed up to gauge public knowledge of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (also known as STEM), along with other subjects such as current events and religion. The results were not what one would hope to see. In fact, they are largely similar to another Pew Research quiz that was taken in June of 2009. Out of a series of 13 questions, the average correct answer across participants of English speakers, male and female, ages 18-over 65, was 8.4.
In the basic knowledge of science news and daily life, the highest score was concerning UV rays and sunscreen at 83%, and only 51% of respondents knew what the purpose of “fracking” was. 46% of respondents think that the main reason young people don’t pursue careers in STEM is because it’s “too hard”. Strangely enough, more independent voters (63%) answered correctly that carbon dioxide is believed to be responsible for an increase in atmospheric temperatures and not the expected Democratic voters (responding correctly at 56%, lower than the Republican respondent 58%). The reflection of these findings was surprising to me. I answered 13 of 13 correctly. Though most college graduates answered at marginally higher rates than other categories, only 31% answered correctly that nitrogen was the primary component of the air they breathe. Is that even possible?
As the mother of two young children, I find these statistics both shocking and grossly unacceptable. My seven year old daughter watches the morning news every week day before school (though I do filter it for age appropriateness). Her father and I discuss the news of the day openly, have heated but civil conversations about politics, religion, culture and social issues frequently in she and my four year old son’s presence. Perhaps they don’t understand the relevance yet but the exposure is good for them, I think. I made my husband do the test too. I expected top notch performance and he delivered the 13 of 13 score as well. You see, part of this problem is an issue of priority. I have passionate opinions as does he. We are also naturally curious people. As a great scientist once said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” That great scientist was Albert Einstein.
Science is the cornerstone of great work in our world. That interest in the basic functions of that world does not fuel the flames of innate human curiosity in a larger portion of our society demonstrates to me a fundamental flaw in the way we teach these essential laws. How are we encouraging our young if they are not exposed to field science? My own curiosity was inspired by countless observations of nature, in addition to the abundant resources I was exposed to through my grandmother, a birdwatcher and gardener. I take what she placed in me, that spark, and give it to my children. It is their birthright. Insular classrooms with the less than lofty black and white heights of textbooks is not what inspired me. I understand that this is part of the problem.
As the increase of non-English speaking, first generation children of immigrants surges in almost every major metropolitan area in the country, so too does the challenge of teaching these children. Many teachers have found that hands-on environmental interaction have more impact than classroom textbook teaching. Observation does not need language, just sensory input, and that input defies the boundaries of language, culture, and sociological factors.
As more and more families find themselves in the close quarters of cities to necessitate employment and financial security, it is a challenge for parents to make simple exploration a priority. In fact, the discrepancy of science literacy in adults compared to their younger counterparts is staggering. For parents with inadequate science knowledge, teaching their young children must seem very difficult indeed. Difficult, but not impossible. My grandmother gave me a gift and I am giving it to my children. Find the gifts in your own life and pass them on. Knowledge is power and scientific knowledge is an essential building block in understanding those gifts.
Exploration doesn’t need to be daunting. Books like “How to be an Explorer of the World” by artist Keri Smith, and Audubon guides to everything from birds to weeds aide the budding explorer in everyday discovery. University programs often hold summer programs for kids of all ages, as does local 4-H programs and non-profit organizations. Start a leaf collection. Document bird sightings. The process of introspective analysis is enriching in a million ways that have nothing to do with hard science. That spark of recognition and understanding lasts a lifetime.