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Science, Technology and Society
by Dr. Joseph Exline

Science is important to the public because it helps address issues that are of concern to the general population. Scientific principles have been and continue to be applied to address issues, concerns, and problems that people face in the day-to-day aspects of living. Scientific research has value and importance to the layperson to the extent that it helps address problems of a practical nature. How science is taught and learned can determine its relevance to the majority of students, not only to those planning careers in scientific fields.

Elements of Science Literacy

Science education has relevance for the learner, since it enables him or her to understand, in an active way, how the natural world is organized and interrelated, and how it changes and interacts with the human-designed world. There are four elements that when combined holistically define science literacy. These four elements are: conceptual themes, or connectors, which are useful for putting isolated information into a context; process skills, which are necessary to observe, collect, measure, and analyze data; nurtured scientific reasoning skills, which encourage the validation and testing of the reasonableness of information; and the important and specific content of the discipline. These are the new "basic skills" demanded by our scientific-technological society.

These elements lead to the development of the attributes necessary for lifelong learning and the ability to apply what has been learned. Through developed problem-solving skills and nurtured science-reasoning abilities, learners can really understand the content under study. More importantly, they can use these same abilities to understand new and different content that they encounter later. These abilities are increasingly important in this rapidly evolving scientific-technological society, particularly with respect to the benefits and challenges of technology. Technology is neutral in itself. It is the application by humans that can make it beneficial or harmful. Decisions about the use of technology have wide-ranging effects. This factor makes a scientifically literate population crucial in our current society.

In the emerging high-performance workplace, virtually everyone acts as a decision-maker, gathers and sifts information, sets up and troubleshoots systems, organizes workflow and team arrangements, manipulates data to solve problems, and, on occasion, provides direction to colleagues. Modern work is entirely too complex for a small group of managers to possess all the answers and solutions.

Evaluating the use of technology by society, and its impact on society, requires the problem-solving skills and the nurtured science reasoning skills to verify assumptions and consider consequences. For example, in this complex technological society, our quest to supply the necessary energy to meet human demands often runs counter to our quest for a quality environment. Likewise, our search for better methods of providing longer, quality life sometimes collides with value systems. These are complex problems for a complex society, and the old basic skills that focused primarily, and in some cases exclusively, on the need to master content will not suffice. New basic skills founded on the active engagement of the learner with a focus on how to learn are essential in a technological society.

Learning and Access to Information

In this age of communication, an important trend being propelled by technology is the ability to link information resources worldwide. This has profound implications for educators and the future of education. For example, technology is fast demonstrating that schools are one of the many places where learning can and will take place by providing ready access to information beyond the classroom walls. Technology is increasingly blurring the distinction between learner and teacher through the capability of giving all users rapid and simultaneous access to information at decreasing cost. This fact has serious implications for the place called school and is one that educators might well note.

Schools are already beginning to evolve toward Learner-Centered Complexes that will take advantage of global resources both during and after regular school hours. What constitutes schoolwork and homework will become less clear as a result of emerging communications technology. Students assigned to do a report on the solar system have many options through technology. The textbook or reference book can be easily supplemented, through technology, by on-line contact with experts and other resources. In some cases, virtual reality makes it possible to experience trips to planets or to look inside a molecule. Although these experiences are not yet widely available, they will become so, and the ability of the educational system to evolve with this change will determine the system's success or failure.

Schools have traditionally been places where there has been an emphasis on the accumulation of content knowledge. While content knowledge is important, its importance is not as an end in itself but rather as the medium around which to actively engage the minds of students, thereby developing problem-solving skills and nurturing reasoning abilities. Technology is demanding a move in the direction of "learning how to learn," and technology can be an effective aid in achieving this important goal.

Computer technology is not television technology. Computer technology is changing and will continue to change the business of education . . . with or without professional educators. Hopefully, professional educators, and especially science educators, will be leading the way toward the new basic skills demanded by a rapidly evolving scientific-technological society.

Dr. Joseph Exline is an educational consultant based in Beaverdam, Virginia.
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