Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Science in the State of the Union


by Edward Hessler

National Science Education Standards of 1993
Educators, especially those in K-12, may recognize the name National Research Council, which, in 1996, published the second of two sets of science education standards. Because the covers of the National Science Education Standards were a burnished gold, the publications were sometimes referred to as "the golden rule." The very first set of national standards was published by the American Association of Science's Project 2061 in 1993. The name was a reference to the year of Comet Halley's return, a reminder of the time required for genuine reform in science education.

By JonRidinger (Own work)
[CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
The National Science Education Standards and the Project 2061 benchmarks were replaced in April 2013 by the Next Generation Science Standards: For States By States. I really appreciate the coda following the main title since it calls attention to the considerable involvement of science educators across the United States. Twenty-six states and their representative teams worked with a 41-member writing team to develop and see them through to completion. A Minnesotan was a member of that writing team.

Next Generation Science Standards 2013
The Next Generation Science Standards are based on a National Research Council publication, A Framework for Science Education. It is worth reading and having on-hand as a resource. The Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards was chaired by theoretical physicist Helen Quinn, best known for her work with Roberto Peccei on the strong force. Now retired, you can read a little more about her in the blog Grandma got STEM.

All of these efforts at setting standards have aimed to focus on a limited set of core ideas and practices rather than coverage of content. Think of it as uncovering rather than covering. The framework, consisting of three dimensions, broadly outlines the knowledge and practices (replaces terms such as skills/inquiry/scientific inquiry) that all students should learn by the end of high school.

It is important for all to have some knowledge of basic scientific facts, concepts, and vocabulary. These help us as citizens to understand legislation which has science content, analyze science in the news and participate in discussions on science-related issues, personal and social. An understanding of how ideas are investigated and analyzed is at least of equal importance, perhaps more.

Scientific Literacy in the State of the Union
An example of the value and use of scientific literacy may be found in the annual State of the Union address by the president of the United States to the joint-session of the U. S. Congress.  For several years the National Academies have published a scientific guide to these addresses. This year's may be found in the NAP Guide to the 2015 State of the Union Address.

See page for author [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
The National Academies--science, engineering, medicine, and research council--are described as "where the nation turns for independent, expert advice."  These academies, through the National Research Council, produce reports that are used in shaping policy and informing citizens. President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional charter in 1863 forming the National Academy of Sciences to "investigate, examine, experiment and report on any subject of science." As science grew in importance, the other arms of the academy were added to its charter and all were subsumed under the National Academies title.

Science is well-rooted in our history. The framers of the Constitution of the United States wrote that the federal government had the duty "To promote the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts." When those words were written in the 18th century, agriculture was regarded as the most important of the "Useful Arts." President Thomas Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis provide early evidence of this duty. (These are the words of a scientifically literate citizen of the Enlightenment, and evidence, too, of Jefferson's keen knowledge of the natural world.)

2015 Review of the State of the Union Address on Science for students
Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A review of the 2015 annotated State of the Union address which relies on published National Research Council reports, shows the deep interpenetration of science and society and may provide students with an idea of some of the paths one may pursue in science, engineering. and medicine.

Still, there is the so-called dismal science, economics, which reminds me, perhaps not loudly enough, that policy is decided, in the end, not by science, which provides the best information possible at the time, but by the values of policy-makers and us. A few weeks ago, Justin Wolfers, in a fascinating column in The Upshot (New York Times), wrote about the triumph of economics over other social disciplines in congressional policy debates.

Wolfers chose as a metric, first noting its basic softness, the use of newspaper mentions.  He was able to do this through the use of a great tool--the NYT Chronicle--which you may access in his column. It takes you to a page with a graph where you can enter science or engineering or medicine or technology etc. and view mentions from 1850 to 2010 and compare and contrast the results.  Each line in the resulting graph is color-coded to the word labels above the graph.

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