State of Science Literacy – Part 2 – Significance of Low Science Literacy in the U.S.

Americans recognize the profound need to focus on science education.  Actually, 97% of voters believe that, “improving the quality of science education is important to the United States’ ability to compete globally.”  (Something we can ALL agree on!)  Early science education is crucial not only to understanding the world around us, but also to create a foundation for those who pursue college science and engineering degrees.  After all, these graduates supply the U.S. workforce, supporting our economy and leading to innovation.

In Part 1 of our State of Science Literacy series, we discussed that the U.S. has disappointingly average science scores in public secondary (grades 6-12) schools compared with other developed nations.   In this article, we’ll discuss the significance of low science literacy in the U.S.

Our government and businesses share the opinion that science education is critical.  Change the Equation is a coalition of corporations whose purpose is to advance STEM education and STEM literacy.  As stated by the President at the program’s launch, “Our nation’s success depends on strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of discovery and innovation.  … Leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today — especially in science, technology, engineering and math.”  One CTEq member, DuPont, said, “We believe that a quality education system strengthens our schools, communities and our businesses.  STEM education is a key component of a quality education.”

We can all nod out heads with this, but it’s a bit shocking to take a peek at the data behind it.  A Congressional Research Service Report for Congress states, “There is growing concern that the United States is not preparing a sufficient number of students, teachers, and practitioners in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A large majority of secondary school students fail to reach proficiency in math and science, and many are taught by teachers lacking adequate subject matter knowledge.”  Ouch!

High school kids don’t tend to pursue college degrees in their least proficient subjects, as we can see by the low output of science graduates.  The rest of the world is churning out science and tech graduates, while our numbers, comparatively, are severely lagging.

31% of American college students received undergraduate degrees in natural sciences or engineering as compared with about:

60% in Japan,

53% in Iran,

50% in China (and that’s nearly 1.3 million science and engineering graduates!),

45% in Singapore and Greece,

40% in Algeria.

Double Ouch!!

Again, our average science secondary school ranking in the world is also translating to low science and engineering college graduates.  The U.S. workforce needs science and engineering graduates.  However, there aren’t enough Americans to fill the demand:

“Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade.”

Employers increasingly need science and engineering graduates, yet only a third of bachelor graduates are earning these degrees.

When you hear this, your mind might picture those jobs filled by corporate and government folks in white, starched lab coats.  However, this science and engineering graduate deficit affects the pool of science teachers, as well.  Only 12% of STEM graduates work in education.  Unfortunately, this means about a third of public middle school science teachers either did not major in the subject in college and/or aren’t certified to teach it.  Teachers who aren’t confident in science are probably not inclined to spend much time on it.  Actually, the average elementary classroom spends just 2.3 hours (or 7%) per week teaching science.

We’re in a bit of a ‘catch 22’ – low success in secondary science education leads to low number of science graduates … low number of science graduates leads to low workforce supply … low workforce supply leads to a deficit of qualified public science teachers … which leads to low science education … and so on.

So, how does this impact U.S. industry and innovation?  We live in the Information Age – we’re a knowledge-based society competing in a high-tech global economy.  Jobs and global businesses are changing due to both the development of automation, medicine, mechanics, etc., and also to meet the demands of new technology.

If you stop to think about it, it’s because of science and technology that our kids have a markedly different childhood than we did.  They need a different set of skills to succeed, and our educational system is trying to adapt to reflect that.  As mentioned earlier, government and corporations are supporting education.  Two additional steps in the right direction:

Sesame Street has recently incorporated a curriculum based on STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math), introducing age appropriate science and math features to its young viewers.

Additionally, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released for state-by-state adoption in April 2013,  and states are beginning to implement them in their public schools.

The former U.S. Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham, as he introduced a science education initiative, stated, “The risks of a scientifically illiterate nation in the 21st century are too great for business as usual. It’s easy to see that something must change – what we’re doing is not working quickly enough.

Agin, there are numerous government and business programs, foundations, and initiatives (NSF, Lockheed Martin, Google, Microsoft, ExxonMobil, NASA, etc.) to increase science and engineering graduates – we won’t list them here, as there are so many.  Why do these exist?  Government and businesses realize that without STEM graduates, our country will fall behind in innovation, which will affect our economy, and therefore our kids’ future.

Perhaps we need to add a new approach to help our children connect with science.

After years of research, Jumbo Minds has developed an innovative solution – introduce the language of science to children early, when their brains are best equipped to learn new languages.  (Check out Jumbo Minds’ Science ABC books.)

When is it too early to start speaking science to children?  In Part 3 of this blog series we will talk about the human’s brain capacity for early learning.  Stay tuned! Remember to connect with Jumbo Minds on social media for hand-picked science facts!

 

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