Science Literacy: Searching for the Right Formula in IHS Chemical Week

Making it real: Mae Jemison discussed the impact of climate change on the environment at a Bayer event in Chicago during this year’s United Nation’s World Environment Day.

September 12, 2008 - Philadelphia, PA

By Esther D’Amico

None of the 12 students from across the U.S. who took part in this year’s You Be the Chemist Challenge is afraid of tackling science. Just to sit on stage at the challenge, a national chemistry Q&A competition held in Philadelphia, meant that they had already beat out thousands of other 7th and 8th graders who participated in regional and/or state-level competitions during the school year. However, the high science literacy level of the 12, ranging in ages from 12-14, is not typical of that of their peers in the U.S., U.K., and in several other developed countries in which test scores are dwindling along with interest in pursuing science careers. The latter situation is troubling to educators and industry executives who say it will ultimately contribute to what they call a growing and fundamental lack of science literacy in the general population, and it is behind increasing efforts to reach students early on with word that science is relevant and just plain fun.

“Science and technological advancements change our world every day,” and students need to understand how and even why they should care about that, says Mae Jemison, a former astronaut aboard the space shuttle Endeavour who is now focused on improving science literacy among children and adults. “Students need to understand how the environment is tied to policies, is tied to economics, is tied to biology—all of these things are tied together,” Jemison says. “You don’t have to know the nth degree. You don’t have to solve the equation, but you need to have an understanding of it. That’s what I mean by science literacy.”

Many adults lack a solid science education and that leaves them ill-equipped to properly interpret and decide about many of the issues in the news today, from global warming to stem cell research, says Jemison, who is also an author, chemical engineer, entrepreneur, physician, and spokesperson for Bayer’s award-winning Making Science Make Sense science literacy program. The lack of understanding sometimes results in the general public “giving up” and leaving decisions about important science-based issues that influence national interests to scientists, corporations, and others, she says. This is unacceptable, she adds.

Some adults are afraid of or overwhelmed by science and do not ask questions because they do not want to appear ill-informed, says Attila Molnar, president and CEO of Bayer Corp. and president of one of the company’s philanthropic arms, Bayer USA Foundation, which helps fund the Making Science Make Sense program. “But people should not be afraid of asking, ‘why,’” Molnar says. “How does the computer work? Why do I need a certain amount of pressure in my tire to reduce the consumption of fuel? Be curious and don’t be afraid of asking the question.”

There is also a perception among some adults that being science literate is akin to having a degree in one of the science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) disciplines. However, boosting science literacy has more to do with feeding “a hunger for discovery” than “memorizing a bunch of facts,” says Thomas Tritton, president and CEO of the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF; Philadelphia), which hosts the You Be the Chemist Challenge. “It has nothing to do with whether you can recite the periodic table.”

Children have a natural curiosity about science, which is sometimes squelched or not encouraged early on, so they often do not pursue it in college, Jemison says. Also, “kids like science,” but not all of them have the opportunity or the tools to help them learn about it, she says. For example, some rural school districts do not have access to lab equipment or other supplies.

Part of the problem lies with the stereotype of the “nerdy,” pocket-protector guy that some young kids conjure up when they think of science careers, Tritton says. “We tend to either think that science is hard, or we portray it as being geeky or anti-social. Young kids especially don’t want to be characterized in those ways,” he says. Also, young girls, minorities, and at-risk youths have often been overlooked by educators and employers and so they have not pursued—or have not been pursued for—STEM careers, he adds. There needs to be more of an effort to draw this demographic into STEM education programs, Tritton says.

However, “we’re now running into a situation in the U.S. in which, not only are we not using over 50% of our population—the girls, minorities, and at-risk students who have not traditionally been involved or well-represented in the sciences—but even white males have been choosing not to go into the sciences as much,” Jemison says. “We really have to figure out what is going on” with science education, she adds.

“The fundamental challenge is how to get students interested in science and technology, particularly young girls, and how to do that early on,” says Eric Darr, executive v.p. and provost of Harrisburg (PA) University of Science and Technology, which opened three years ago in response to the need for increased STEM educational outlets. Grabbing students’ attention involves re-evaluating the types of pre-college STEM programs in place, Darr says. “But there’s so much more than just the educational piece; there’s the interest and motivational pieces” that carry over into higher education, he says.

Many chemical industry executives have become outspoken about the need to improve pre-college STEM education as a means to increase the talent pool of tomorrow (CW, April 11/18, 2007, p. 19). Many companies have programs aimed at boosting science literacy in K-12 grades and/or increasing the number of higher education graduates with STEM degrees. Many also have separate initiatives to reach the general public.

Bayer Corp., under the Making Science Make Sense program, launched a pilot project in 2006—interactive Q&A kiosks on science—at the baggage claim area of the Pittsburgh International Airport, near the company’s headquarters. The kiosks tackle subjects such as how fog is generated and why popcorn pops. They were aimed at drawing the attention of restless children waiting for their parents who were waiting for their luggage, Molnar says.

Bayer had initially expected the kiosks to draw about 4,000/month, “but the actual numbers are about three-times as high,” Molnar says. Also, the company has found that adults are whiling away time at the kiosks as they wait for their luggage. “There is a tremendous amount of traffic going there,” he says. The company plans to expand the kiosk program next year to other high-traffic areas “in the communities where we work,” he adds.

That adults can be drawn by children into learning more about science is another method of teaching, educators say. “Children can influence their parents, the adults around them, to pay more attention to things,” Jemison says. “When children get involved in science, they bring things home, which usually causes the adults around them to have to pay more attention.”

The kiosk is just one offshoot of many industry efforts to de-mystify science for kids. BASF launched a series of explanatory “every day chemistry” podcasts at its Web site in 2007, featuring a “reporter” who answers questions received via e-mail. The podcasts, each of which lasts several minutes, cover a range of topics from “Why can’t you mix oil and water?” to “What does fertilizer have to do with plant growth?”

There has also been a growing number of STEM competitions launched by schools and organizations in recent years aimed at attracting interest. The You Be the Chemist Challenge, created by the Chemical Education Foundation (Arlington, VA), has a long list of sponsors including Arch Chemicals (story, p. 33).

Part of ACC’s Essential2 ad campaign is aimed at raising both industry employee and public awareness of the importance of chemistry and the chemical industry to products used in “every day life.”

The importance of the need to improve STEM education needs to be addressed more strongly at a national level than it currently is, educators say. STEM literacy is usually measured as a percentage of the total number of STEM graduates, which has been declining in the U.S. for at least 20 years, Darr says. Parts of Europe also show downward STEM literacy rates, but China and India rates have climbed, he says. “What’s interesting is that Germany has stayed fairly flat over that period of time,” he adds. “One theory is that Germany’s pre-college educational system is very different than, say, the U.S.’s or the U.K.’s. That is, Germany has very different ‘high school’ diplomas, if you will—one is technical and the other is more of an academic diploma.”

In the U.S., studies of 4th and 8th grade students show that less than one-third of them performed at or above a level called “proficient” in math, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS; Washington) says in its 2005 report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” Proficiency is measured as the ability to exhibit competence with challenging subject matter. “Alarmingly, about one-third of the 4th graders and one-fifth of the 8th graders lacked the competence to perform even basic mathematical computations,” says NAS, referring to 2005 data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (Washington).

U.S. students rank 24th worldwide in math literacy by the time they enter high school, says Tapping America’s Potential (TAP; Washington), an education-focused coalition of 16 business organizations including the Business Roundtable (Washington), National Association of Manufacturers (NAM; Washington), and the Semiconductor Industry Association (San Jose, CA). There is much room for improvement in pre-college math and science scores as well (charts, p. 36). The percentage of U.S. high school students interested in majoring in engineering dropped by nearly 35% from 1995-2005, TAP says.

Statistics tell only part of the story, however, Tritton says. “You can measure innovation [in the sciences] by the number of Nobel prizes, but also consider that many of the new technologies we’ve relied on to make our civilization better have come from America,” he says. “We’ve done a pretty good job of innovating, and this is still true,” he adds. “But, there are things to worry about.”

Educators, scientists, and some business groups say the lack of emphasis on STEM education early on is largely responsible for the shrinking talent pool for businesses to draw on and puts a country’s competitiveness in the global economy at risk.

“One of the things that has driven awareness [to increase STEM education] is the increasing cost of higher education,” Darr says. This came to fore especially in the last decade as studies showed that students were graduating “but not getting jobs. Parents asked why they just spent one-quarter of a million dollars on an education and their kids are not getting jobs,” he says.

Many jobs in the service economies of the U.S. and other developed countries require STEM training, educators say. “A substantial portion of our workforce finds itself in direct competition for jobs with lower-wage workers around the globe, and leading-edge scientific and engineering work is being accomplished in many parts of the world,” the NAS report says. “Workers in virtually every sector must now face competitors who live just a mouse-click away in Ireland, Finland, China, India, or dozens of other nations whose economies are growing.”

In higher education, only 15% of all U.S. undergraduates receive degrees in natural sciences or engineering, the NAS report says. That compares with 38% in South Korea, 47% in France, 50% in China, and 67% in Singapore. About one-third of U.S. students intending to major in engineering switch majors before graduating, it says.

The number of STEM degrees awarded to U.S. undergraduate students has only increased by 24,000, to 225,000, from 2001-06, says a TAP report. China is graduating more than four times as many engineers as the United States, TAP says. “By 2010, if current trends continue, more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers in the world will be living in Asia,” it adds. Using 2001 as a baseline, TAP has set a target of doubling the number of students earning STEM bachelor’s degrees to 400,000 by 2015.

U.S. talent shortages “are having a widespread impact on manufacturers’ abilities to achieve production levels, increase productivity, and meet customer demands,” NAM says. “Manufacturers are dealing with the most dramatic workforce crisis in U.S. history. Eighty percent of manufacturers report shortages of qualified workers,” says John Engler, NAM president.

Shortages “will increase with the retirement of the baby boom generation and rapidly advancing workplace technology,” NAM says. The organization has several educational and workforce initiatives under way, including the formation of a skills certification program “to provide industry recognition of education, skills, and competencies needed for entry-level jobs and advancement opportunities in manufacturing,” says Emily DeRocco, president of NAM’s newly created National Center for the American Workforce.

Workforce competitiveness and science literacy issues are drawing the attention of U.S. lawmakers. Legislation aimed at improving STEM K-12 grade education was introduced in the House in May. The bill, introduced by representative Michael Honda (D., CA), calls for STEM information sharing among federal agencies and the establishment of annual goals for improving STEM education nationwide.

Meanwhile, teachers have a role to play in making STEM careers attractive to students, educators say. Molnar says his interest in science began 50 years ago because of a teacher “who had an uncanny ability” of making science interesting and fun.

However, some 68% of U.S. 8th grade students in 1999 were taught from a math teacher who did not hold a degree or certification in math, and 93% of 5th-9th grade students in 2000 were taught physical science by a teacher lacking a major or certification in any of those sciences, the NAS study says.

The study recommends increasing the talent pool by “vastly improving” K-12 science and math education. It proposes a goal of annually recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers “and thereby educating 10 million minds,” through a competitive four-year scholarship program. Under the program, students would need to obtain bachelor’s degrees in the physical or life sciences, engineering, or math with concurrent certification as K-12 science and math teachers, and be required to commit five years of service in public K-12 schools.

The need to improve science literacy is so great that educators hope those teachers will, in the end, commit more time than that. Many in the chemical industry are also concerned about improving skills of teachers, and some, including Honeywell with its space and science exploration initiative, offer scholarship programs for educators.

Many chemical companies are keenly aware of the need to boost science literacy for everyone, Tritton says. “Why? The more self-serving answer is that it concerns their workforce,” he says. However, improving literacy in reading and writing—in all disciplines—is “in everyone’s best interest,” he says. There should be a push for a more well-rounded, cross-disciplinary education, he adds.

“I come from a liberal arts background, so my inclination is to think you need a broad-based education,” says Tritton, a chemotherapy research expert who has a bachelor of arts degree from Ohio Wesleyan University (Delaware, OH) and a Ph.D. from Boston University. “The superstructure can’t be any more stronger than the base on which it sits.”

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