Educators raise concerns about technological illiteracy in the US

HOW does the picture on your TV set get there? Can you describe the technology? If that's too hard, how about your telephone? How does it work?

If you don't know the answers to these questions, don't feel lonely. According to a recent survey, 9 out of 10 Americans don't understand the technology that lets them reach out and touch someone on the phone; fewer still know how TVs work.

``Many of the people we asked thought telephone signals were amplified through a hollow tube,'' says John Miller, who directed the survey for Northern Illinois University's Public Opinion Laboratory.

Dr. Miller's findings were presented in Baltimore last weekend at an education conference focusing on the ``technological illiteracy'' of the average US citizen.

Scientists and educators from around the United States debated what it means for Americans to live and work in a society in which they do not understand the basic principles behind the tools they use every day.

A lack of curiosity, together with poor teaching of math and science in the public schools, was cited as the causes for such technological illiteracy. Even though the much-heralded 1983 federal report on the public schools, ``A Nation at Risk,'' cited a need to improve science and math performance, and major federal initiatives were planned through such organizations as the National Science Foundation, little improvement has yet been made, conference members reported. Aggravating the problem is a worsening shortage of qualified teachers in these areas.

What concerned conference participants most is the growing gap between a ``scientific elite'' and the general public -- a gap that does not bode well for public decisionmaking on scientific and technical subjects as the nation moves into the 21st century.

``We produce the best physicists in the world,'' says Dr. Rustum Roy, director of the science, technology, and society program at Pennsylvania State University, which cosponsored the conference along with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). ``But that's just a tiny fraction of the people,'' he adds.

John Rutherford of the AAAS remarks that in the 1980s, scientific and technological issues ``are different than they used to be'' and demand a better-informed public.

The ``magical acceptance'' of technology contributes to ``instability'' in public policy, he says, citing nuclear power plants as a prime example. People first thought the technology was wonderful ``for all the wrong reasons,'' he says, then turned sour on it, ``again, for the wrong reasons. Without at least some knowledge of technology, you have to flow with the tide -- take somebody else's opinion,'' Mr. Rutherford says.

Schools need to start early by giving children a basic scientific and technical vocabulary, he contends. Also, they need to better convey such basics as the differences between observation and inference, between theory and hypothesis.

One overriding question: Will there be enough teachers to meet these needs?

The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, an independent research firm in Washington, D.C., predicts that by the year 1990 Los Angeles County alone will require more science and math teachers than the entire country will produce by that time, should present trends continue. Last year, for example, three Midwestern states produced but one science teacher each, the research firm noted.

Reasons given for the scant crop of teachers are essentially the same as those cited in ``A Nation at Risk'': better pay, better opportunity for career advancement, and better working conditions in private industry than in teaching.

J. Myron Atkin, dean of Stanford University's School of Education, says the problem will need ``sustained attention'' over a span of about 20 years. So far, the shortfall has been handled mainly by teachers teaching out of their field, he says. ``Most reasonable people would say that the quality of such teaching is fairly low,'' he adds.

A recurring question at the Baltimore conference was whether people really need to be literate in science and technology.

Most speakers answered along the lines of Dr. Miller: ``We spend 13 years in school and billions of dollars on education. Learning a few scientific and technical ideas is not so much to ask.''

Since ``A Nation at Risk'' was published, about half the states have defined ``core curricula'' and set tougher graduation requirements that mandate more math and science instruction. Miller says students in these states ``sooner or later . . . will have to encounter something that looks like math. You can't spend three years balancing a checkbook.''

Beyond this, innovative teaching approaches are being developed at places like New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- approaches that integrate science and technology into all subject areas, including the arts and humanities.

The result of such teaching, says Dr. Cecily Selby of New York University, is that ``kids become confident enough to ask questions about why rockets go up and how cars are made. They aren't alienated from the tools of their culture.''

Rutherford feels the learning needs to go deeper than ``just knowing how our tools work.'' He says students need to be ``more critical'' of technology -- understand how it fits into the patterns and structure of society.''

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