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Science, Society and the Schools

The social goal of scientific literacy requires that effective scientific education be imparted in the schools and that it reach all students.

The participation of the body politic in the science and technology decision-making process may be represented by a pyramid (G. Almond, 1950, The American People and Foreign Policy, Harcourt Brace). At the top are the government officials (executive, legislative, judiciary) in charge of making and executing political decisions. Just below them are the policy advisers: experts who provide the policy makers with scientific and technical analysis of the issues, including their economic and public health consequences.

The third level of the pyramid is represented by the scientists, engineers and technicians who embody the technological expertise of the body politic, who get the industrial and technological engine engaged by introducing new inventions, developing technologies, improving manufacturing processes and the like; scientists and engineers who advance and impart knowledge also belong on this level.

At the base of the pyramid is the labor force, the large majority of those involved in the productive sector of the economy. They need to be scientifically literate in order to fulfill the needs of modern industry and commerce. Practical politics and the exercise of democratic freedoms and powers require that the public at large must also be included in the large base of the scientific pyramid, because all citizens are (or, by right, should be) involved in the election of government officials, who are selected on the basis of their performance or the promises of a political platform.

Science and technology have commercial, strategic, bureaucratic and public-health consequences not at their margins, but at the core of these essential components of the political process. A participatory democracy requires that the electorate—the public at large—be scientifically literate so that it may or may not support the proposals or decisions of officials, and endorse or not their election based on some understanding of the implications of those proposals or decisions.

The science education of the public at large is primarily a responsibility of the primary and secondary schools. They must prepare the students who will go on to technical schools, colleges and universities and become the scientists and engineers who occupy critical positions in the industrial and economic development of modern nations. Schools must also prepare the workforce demanded by science-based industries and by the increasingly numerous enterprises that require technically skilled labor. Finally, the schools must accomplish the goal of preparing people for participatory citizenship, which requires as a minimum some understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge.

These broad goals make it imperative that science education be started in the early school grades and continued through all years of mandatory education. The success of science and mathematics teaching will, of course, be largely predicated on the preparation and dedication of the teachers of primary and secondary schools and demands suitable investments by the school districts, the states, and the federal government.



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