Use STEM education to improve civic literacy

The OlympianFebruary 25, 2014 

Rachel Ramsey, right, watches Monica Gockel pours epsom salt along with essential oils and lavender to make bath salt at South Puget Sound Community College on Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. Ramsey and Gockel engaged middle school aged girls in hands-on workshops with subjects ranging from science, technology, engineering, and math (S.T.E.M.), to DIY bike mechanics and creative writing. Each workshop will pair a group of 10-15 girls with a female mentor from the community who will encourage participants to explore their interests and consider diverse career paths.

LUI KIT WONG/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

During the past several legislative sessions, there’s been a steady push for more and better education in science, technology, engineering and math – known as the STEM disciplines. The push comes mainly from companies such as Boeing, Microsoft, and biomedical firms who need more educated employees. But there are other, perhaps even more important reasons to support better education in math and science.

In the 21st century, science and math education are prerequisites to competent self-government.

How do citizens assess the morality of stem cell research, or the safety of genetically modified foods? How do voters know what to believe about climate change, and which candidates will shape the right public policy responses to it? How capable are taxpayers of calculating the fairness of our tax system, or the basics of our governments’ budgets?

The truth is, civic literacy is impossible without a solid grounding in science and math.

Science also grounds us in the fundamental realities of our lives: It’s scientific knowledge that reveals to us that we are part of a complex, interdependent web of life; that we are walking around in bodies made up of billions of cells, teeming with microscopic bacteria and chemical compounds; and that we are incredibly tiny creatures on a planet spinning around a star in a vast universe.

The more we know about this world we live in, the more awe we experience. And the more we learn, the more humble we are about how much we don’t know.

And then there is the beauty of math. If you think math is deadly boring and unrelated to real life, consider the Fibonacci sequence: It’s a mathematical sequence that elegantly describes the spiral pattern of a sunflower’s seeds, a snail shell, a galaxy, or the petals of a rose.

Leonardo Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician, published a book in 1205 that describes this sequence and its ubiquitous presence in nature. There is a statue of him in Pisa, Italy, a rock band named for him, and references to his eponymous sequence in music, novels (“The DaVinci Code,” for instance) and even jokes in cartoons.

It’s worth learning the math to get the jokes, but even more satisfying to learn the math to see the subtle underlying order of the universe.

There are also more quotidian reasons to have a bit of knowledge about math and science: It’s likely to make you a better cook, a better car mechanic, and a smarter consumer. It might also help you avoid dumb conversations about how much to tip your waiter.

But the biggest reason for improving our level of math and science literacy is that these disciplines train our minds to observe carefully, to test evidence, to use logic, and to make diligent, disciplined use of our capacity for reason.

An increase in the use of reason – in our political and civic life especially – would be of even greater value than an increase in the number of job applicants qualified to work in technical and scientific fields.

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