Public Release: 

Why can't Johnny understand science, at AAAS session?

Cornell University

BOSTON -- Science is part of our daily lives -- the way we understand the natural world, the technologies we use and the decisions we make about our health and the environment. So why, asks Cornell University researcher Bruce Lewenstein, do most people know so little about science?

Lewenstein, who is an associate professor of science communication at Cornell, is among the growing number of educators exploring the gap between practitioners of science and the public at large. Aided by federal and university funding initiatives, they are working to promote general "scientific literacy" through community involvement and education efforts, known as outreach. But, they ask, are their efforts working?

The question will be addressed by researchers and educators at 9 a.m. today (Feb. 17) at a symposium, "Best Practices From Research Scientists Who Communicate With The Public," at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. The panel is organized by Lewenstein and by Ilan Chabay of the New Curiosity Shop, consultants in the design of science learning experiences and programs.

In recent years, increasing emphasis on outreach and education by major scientific funding agencies -- including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health -- has sparked renewed interest among scientists in developing ways to work outreach into their research programs. For example, the NSF, which distributes more than $4 billion in research funding annually, in 1997 stopped evaluating grant proposals primarily on the intellectual merit of the proposed research. Now the standard includes broader social impacts of the research under consideration and strengthens the role of education and the participation of underrepresented groups. Even so, says Lewenstein, public education still has a long way to go. "Senior people at scientific institutions and societies all recognize the importance of outreach. Meanwhile, younger researchers are often socialized to not engage in outreach but to stay in the lab," he says. "There are lots of scientists who engage in outreach, but compared to the number who could, it's pretty small."

Lewenstein edits a quarterly academic journal, Public Understanding of Science , and directs the New York Science Education Program, a consortium of colleges committed to improving undergraduate science education.

Also speaking on the AAAS panel will be Nevjinder Singhota, educational programs director at the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR), one of 29 such NSF-funded centers that promotes interdisciplinary research and education.

Singhota coordinates a diverse outreach program, one of several at Cornell that brings science faculty, graduate students and undergraduates into area K-12 classrooms. CCMR also runs workshops for teachers, home-schooled children and teenagers in juvenile detention facilities. A crucial factor in the success of CCMR outreach, according to Singhota, is making education part of the administrative vision. She notes that the director of CCMR, Frank DiSalvo, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Sciences at Cornell, and the associate director, Helene Schember, encourage faculty to do outreach. "They themselves do it, they develop the lessons, and so it evolved from that. It's just part of the whole process," she says.

During the past two years, CCMR has offered more than 40 programs reaching more than 70 undergraduates, 2,000 K-12 students, 100 teachers, 125 parents and 20,000 upstate New York newspaper readers through an ask-the-scientist column. Participants have included more than 100 faculty members, 80 graduate and post doctoral students, 16 professional staff members and numerous undergraduates.

DiSalvo sees science education as essential to a democratic society in which the public makes decisions related to science and technology. "A scientifically illiterate public is a recipe for disaster," he says. "As a democracy it's in our best interest to become scientifically literate, and that's really what outreach is about -- to introduce people to the methods of science and the fun of science."


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o Public Understanding of Science :

o International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology:

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