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Colloquium focuses on crisis in science education

By Niraj S. Desai

"Our educational system accepts mediocrity as the norm, especially in math and science," declared President Paul E. Gray '54. As a result, US public school students are at a disadvantage when compared to students in Europe and Japan, he continued.

Gray's comments came at yesterday's MIT Colloquium, "Science Smarts: The Scandal of Scientific Literacy."

Recent studies have indicated alarming trends among American students, Gray said. He cited one study which found that "the average US youngster is four grades behind [his] counterpart in Japan." In another, less than half of those interviewed knew that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

This lack of basic knowledge about scientific and technological subjects has rendered many citizens "unable to be informed participants in public debates," Gray warned.

Concerns like this were what prompted the MIT Colloquium Committee and four student organizations to organize yesterday's colloquium on scientific illiteracy. In addition to Gray, F. James Rutherford, chief education officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Sandra Spooner, Cambridge's assistant superintendent of schools, made presentations at the colloquium's afternoon session in Kresge Auditorium.

Evening dinner/discussion groups at various living groups followed the presentations.

"Long-standing scandal"

The US educational system is in need of a radical overhaul, Rutherford argued. It has been a "long-standing scandal" that the present system has produced people who "are illiterate in science, technology, and math," he said.

The system tends to kill a child's interest in science as soon as he begins the educational process, Rutherford claimed. Instead of teaching science to children by allowing them to explore, to experiment, to make mistakes and discoveries, the system puts them behind desks learning about science from textbooks, he said. Rather than thinking of science as a process of inquiry, children are taught to view science as a

set of facts to be memorized, Rutherford continued.

And Rutherford did not limit his criticism to elementary and secondary schools. He told the students in the audience of about 800 not to think of themselves as scientifically literate because they have received a technical education from MIT. Being scientifically literate involves more than just knowing techniques; it involves grasping the historical and social contexts in which science and technology are formed and exist, he said.

Moreover, students who claim to be knowlegeable about the role of science in society have a duty to spread the knowledge -- by, for example, volunteering as tutors or museum guides, or becoming teachers. "Volunteering will make you better vocationally [and] a better human being in a democratic society."

Spooner: schools need

"science specialists"

Spooner approached the question of scientific literacy from the viewpoint of an administrator for a large urban school district. Cambridge has 75000 students enrolled in some 14 schools, she said. About half are minorities, and many come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The challenges in teaching science in such a system are manifold. In particular, Spooner cited the lack of science specialists, teachers trained specifically to teach science, at the elementary and secondary school levels.

Often, teachers who do not feel comfortable teaching scientific disciplines are forced to do so because of budget or scheduling constraints, Spooner said. In such cases, teachers tend to teach science straight from a textbook, without any experimentation or effort to make the subject


This is particularly unfortunate, according to Spooner, because "teachers are the emissary of the message." That is, teachers are the ones who introduce children to scientific inquiry, and hence have the power to either develop their interest or quench it.

Cambridge has tried, in the wake of recent budget cuts, to maintain its programs, Spooner said. But the city, and others like it, could benefit from outside aid, she added. College students, faculty, and others can make valuable contributions to public school systems by volunteering their time. "Reach out and touch a teacher in Cambridge," Spooner urged.