The Science Students
Science education is not just about training
the next generation of scientists—it’s also
about developing responsible citizens.
James Trefil and Wanda O’Brien-Trefil
Our students live in a world increasingly dominated by science and technology. To be responsible citizens, they will need to have informed opinions on all sorts of issues, from global warming, to stem cells, to the storage of nuclear waste. We can only speculate on what issues will arise in the future, but they’re sure to have a scientific or
technological component. So what sort of science education will best prepare
students to face that world?
For most scientists, the goal of general education in science is to turn out a miniature scientist, someone who can do, at some level, the kinds of things that professional scientists do. They would agree with Nobel Laureate Carl Weiman when he
said, “We want them to think like us.” Given the limited amount of class time we can
devote to the sciences, this goal inevitably produces students who have, at best, a
good understanding of a limited range of sciences. This sort of education prepares
students for the world of Galileo—not for the world they will actually enter.
Scientific Literacy and Responsible Citizenship
Science education should have a different goal: Students should be able to comprehend the news on the day they graduate. Will they understand the news article about
a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions? The one on wind and solar power?
Many news items on a typical day will involve such topics; students should be able
to understand these scientific issues with the same facility that they understand political, economic, and legal issues. Someone who can do this is scientifically literate.
We should, then, judge the education that students receive in science on the basis
of whether students will eventually become citizens who can meaningfully participate in the kind of debate that is the core process of our democratic system. Once we
adopt this goal—rather than the goal of producing miniature scientists—several
important conclusions follow.
First, we see that students will need to have some understanding of a wide array of
scientific topics. What you need to know to make an informed judgment about
storing nuclear waste is rather different from what you need to know to make an
informed judgment about stem cells. To function effectively on all issues, future
citizens will need to be conversant with many more aspects of science than the