The scientific literacy of the American student has been dropping for quite some time now, and we often hear about this serious problem (here and here and, oh, over here). Our national educational system -- from both the public and private sectors -- are in place to do something about it, and many have great intentions to do so.
One institution of higher education, Bard College, launched a new program before classes started in January 2011 with the goal of instilling a new sense of appreciation for scientific understanding and process (read the press release, April 10, 2010). Citizen Science at Bard College (visit) is required for all incoming Freshman and includes faculty from across the country to engage with students in a new and exciting educational forum. (Read more: Citizen Science at Bard Article.)
The inaugural students' responses from this largely "right-brained"-leaning school were mixed. Some were annoyed that they lost time from their break while others approached the academic pursuit as something that could really broaden their outlook. This unsurprising span is certainly common in all classrooms, but with no grades nor credits at stake and only the requirement of guided scientific playing, this effort by Bard College is an outstanding idea to spark renewed excitement in science for the next generation of United States citizens.
"An Infusion of Science Where the Arts Reign" :: The New York Times :: January 21, 2011 :: [ READ ]
The Citizen Science course from Bard College should not directly create a new breed of professional scientists -- this is the opposite goal of the program. More scientists in this country are always needed, but everyone doesn't need to play that role. This country more desperately needs a broader base of its citizens to have an increased appreciation of science and technology.
We don't need to be able to calculate the thermal emission and resulting temperature distribution in our living rooms when we just need to decide if we want to screw in a 60 W or 100 W light bulb in the lamp on the coffee table. However, we do need to be able to think about what we hear from the professionals and the politicians and the pundits. These "Three Ps" are supposed to be out there to help the rest of the world advance into a better future, but sometimes -- and maybe more often than some of us would like -- they claim ideas that really need to be shut down and sorted into File 13.
Forcing Physics 101 onto first-year college students has been the vehicle to drive science rigor into our daily brain activity. And while this should still be a important component to this effort, Physics 101 alone is proving to be inefficient in its results. Citizen Science is growing into a viable outlet for broad based scientific appreciation in informal education, and developing this approach in the classroom will be a critical advancement in academia's responsibility to the future of scientific literacy in America.