Making the Case for Technological Literacy

Tech Lit Workshop II: Speaker Excerpts

Excerpts from Speaker Remarks
Workshop on National and International Efforts that Encourage the Development of Technological Literacy


Committee on Technological Literacy
March 16-18, 2000
See the Agenda

Vernon Ehlers
My ideas of SMET [science, math, engineering and technology] education, and particularly the purposes of SMET education, are first -- these are not necessarily numbered in priority, either -- first what we have traditionally done: Use science, math, engineering technology education to produce good scientists and engineers. I think that is even more important now than it has been traditionally, because as you all know, our current economic growth depends largely on the development of science and technology. That is why our country is doing so well compared to others, because we have done the research, and much of it is decades old. But we did the research then, and we developed the superstructure.

The second purpose, technical education for the workplace, or what I might better call workplace readiness. I am convinced that in 15 years, maybe even less, it will be virtually impossible to get a meaningful job without substantial knowledge about science, math, technology, at almost any level, from office jobs to machine jobs.

Third, I think it is very important that we have a nation that consists of educated consumers and voters or consumers and citizens, relating to science and technology. An amazing amount of our decisions today for the average person involve some amount of science and technology, if they really want to understand issues -- whether it is buying vitamins or other health products, whether it is buying a TV and trying to understand why one costs twice as much as the other and what you get and what you don't get in each of those, and so on.

Similarly, there are a host of technical issues that have to be dealt with in the political arena today. Sometimes the voters have to vote on them through referendum. Other times, they are electing officials, representatives, to represent them. But if they don't understand the issue, these are not likely to be the best candidates.

Finally, I think a very important purpose of SMET education is to enable thinkers and learners, in other words, teach people to think and learn.

Mike Atkin
I co-directed a 13-country study of innovations in science, math and technology education for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (p28). One of the clearest [broad findings in this study] was a move toward more practical work. That is, relating science and math…to events in the community…how do science and math relate to our lives? (p29-30) [They moved toward] more practical for a lot of reasons. Not least, it is seen as a way to engage children more directly in the subjects of science and mathematics. It relates to our lives right here and now. It affects us in a very proximate fashion, and therefore, the assumption is they will study the science and mathematics more systematically and carefully.

The most dramatic development with respect to a move toward the practical is the creation of a brand new subject: technology. Here, the view of technology…is a very broad definition. It emphasizes not so much computer based technologies but it emphasizes what we do, what we try, [and] what we learn in attempts to alter the human condition. If you can over simplify, you can talk about science as a quest for human understanding, and you can talk about technology as an attempt to alter the human condition. (pp31-33). [With science and mathematics] the emphasis is on understanding a particular concept that is broadly accepted in the scientific community at the time. There is usually a specific concept that you are trying to teach.

Engineering is a different kind of business. There is no one best bridge across the Golden Gate. It depends on context. It depends on the science, of course: you want that bridge to stand up. There are all kinds of considerations that technology engineers are always aware of. There are costs, there are benefits, there are side effects.

So [people are] beginning to value [this] kind of intellectual activity in which there is no one answer; in which the intellectual justification is the basis as well as the practical result of the basis for making judgments about how effective something is. (p40)

Amy Kaslow
...never before has the appearance of working America been so deceiving. Payrolls have hit record highs, unemployment rate obviously the lowest in decades. But…the reality behind these numbers is very troubling. There is an acute skills shortage in every part of the country. We believe it threatens the foundation of American competitiveness. The debate rages on about the K12 dilemma, the inadequacies of American schooling are inescapable in the American workplace, where too few people have learned how to learn.

Information technology has become the defining feature of the American labor pool, turning computer literacy into a basic skill and creating a demand for knowledge workers that is far from being met. Skill shortages are pervasive and the digital divide that we are hearing about cuts across every defining segment of the country: regional, urban/rural, industrial, economic, educational, and especially demographic.

Broadly defined, technology has led the nation's long term economic growth since the Second World War, and the most robust job growth in the past decade has obviously been in IT, and the demand for workers in this area is exploding. Technology has enormous implications for productivity in the economy at large. Yet, the pace of technological change is powered in part by workers who can learn quickly and apply new skills. The faster those skills can be absorbed, the greater the number of Americans who will earn higher wages, and the more the United States economy can maintain its competitive edge.

Peter Joyce
[At Cisco] . . . we have invested quite heavily in with a project called the Cisco Networking Academy Program. A couple of objectives for the program. One is to prepare young people for the demands and opportunities of the Internet economy, to motivate students to increase their academic achievement levels, introduce students to the culture of the industry, develop leading skills or SCANS skills, and demonstrate a new education delivery system. This one is a very important component.

The courses will be in three components. One is content. I say content because it is all Web delivered. So there is text, which is in about an eighth grade reading and math level, to do some of the calculations. It also has simulations, using the video technologies. There is also a lab component in semesters three and four, where the students actually have a hands-on approach to working with these routers and cabling and everything else. Then the third component that we are trying to push is to then take that out of the classroom, out of the lab setting, and put it in a work setting, where students are networking hospitals or nonprofits or conventions that are happening, or the schools themselves, or working in a business setting. So it is those three components.

Rush Holt
I have spent a good deal of my time thinking why we teach science and mathematics and technology in the schools, what is the point…One of the landmarks in my intellectual journey in trying to understand this, was an essay written by Lewis Thomas, the biologist, who called science the shrewdest maneuver for understanding how the world works. Not sacred, it is a maneuver. But we ought to recognize how very valuable it is.

What is that maneuver? It is this idea to frame a question in a way that you can answer it empirically and verifiably that I think is the essence of science. That is what we are trying to teach…we are not trying to teach to students a compendium of all facts and techniques that are accepted, but we are really trying to get at the essence of it. I think what we are trying to get at is the mechanism of technology, the process of science, and the integration of those into the general curriculum.

…it is worth keeping in mind that the concept of what is a fact and how you acquire it is something that is not well recognized in our society. It is indeed negotiable, and we have to equip the students to be able to negotiate this, to be able to understand what Lewis Thomas meant when he said science is the shrewdest maneuver. We have to equip them to overcome the—I don't want to use too strong a word—but, the fear of technology. This is not something to be done only by experts, this is not something that you should not try at home, that indeed, it is and should be part of the life of every student.

Martha Cyr
The Center for Engineering Educational Outreach really has two missions. The primary one is [to use] engineering as our tool to get people to engage in math and science through hands-on learning. We also, whenever possible, bring in other fields, literature and art, history, things like that. We also think it is terribly important—technical literacy just in general—not only for students in K-12 but for teachers, for the general public to get an understanding. If it comes home through the kids, if the teachers are talking about it in their communities, however it gets out there. As kids grow up and take it with them, whether they go on to be history people or technical people, whatever they are choosing to do, they will have some comfort level with it [technology]. Why K-12 engineering? Well, technical literacy is a critical thing for successful citizens not just as working engineers but -- just to have a confident citizenry of the United States who understands how their VCR works. terms of an increase in literacy. We actually have first graders with self-initiated conversations about force and friction affecting the models that they have built. We have fourth graders who understand that recycling is an entire process, it is not just taking the glass things and the metal things off your counter and putting them into the appropriate bins and putting them by the curb, that there is a process that happens all the way along. Sixth graders can create their own assembly lines and understand the difference between on-demand assembly versus a full process. Ninth graders who are capable, and even at lower levels also, can work designing a product, building it, and then making a presentation and reasoning about what their product is good for.

Richard Sclove
The question for me is how you motivate technological literacy of various kinds. The old rubric goes that knowledge is power. My experience is that that is sometimes true. Knowledge can lead to power, but also you do not always win just because you know the most. What I have found more consistently to be true is that in a certain sense, empowerment motivates knowledge acquisition in the sense that if you put people into situations where by building their own technological literacy they are enabled to influence the world in ways that they care about, then in a way, technological literacy disappears as a problem. You cannot stop ? if they think that they can influence by learning technological knowledge of the three kinds that I have said, whichever of those, if they think that they can have an input, an important impact on parts of the world they care about, they become learning machines. They become relentless learners, and you would have to use a gun or a bulldozer to stop them from learning.

It says to me that if you want to ? if we want to advance technological literacy, seeking broader social empowerment within decisions that affect people's lives, in other words, lay participation, broadening lay participation in consequential technological decisions, is a promising route for advancing technological literacy.

Bob Tinker
Another totally different topic but I think one that is terribly important particularly for technological literacy is the idea of online courses at a distance. There are a lot of different ways that you can do online education. The model that works is called Scheduled Asynchronous Collaborative Learning in Small Groups.

We are not saying that because it is online we can do 1,000 kids where we could only, for the same cost, do 20 before. They are small groups. The main learning goes on in discussion groups that are online. These are asynchronous, but they are highly scheduled so that it means that all of the students are thinking about the same thing, have had similar experience when they come into the discussion group. The discussions are moderated and led by trained moderators who are effective in getting group learning going. That makes it not cheaper but in many respects better than other forms of education. Not cheaper because what works best is groups of about 20 with a moderator. It is really reproducing a classroom except in virtual space.

Labs are a challenge in virtual space, but they are soluble. One of the courses that I am working on right now is an electronics course. We are working ? one of the beautiful things about this is that you can bring in wonderful resources. Forrest Mimms, maybe some of you know if you are a hobbyist. When you go to Radio Shack and you get a bunch of books there, they are all written by Forrest Mimms. He has been writing columns in Popular Electronics for ages. He is working with us to create activities that students can do on breadboards. Real things, not just virtual. Build the circuits, try them out, show them to a peer or somebody around, and work through a whole lot of issues about debugging, testing, design, fundamental engineering and technological literacy issues. It is quite possible to do online.

John Buchanan
This year at Springarn, we initiated the GenWhy Program, short for Generation Why. How did I get involved? I was very entranced by the idea of kids teaching teachers. The concept was that kids are so comfortable with technology and old fogies like us ? or like some of us, I guess ? are less open minded to technology. Why not use that energy to help those kids, help those students, to introduce or to enhance their teachers to use technology in the classroom. That is the basic concept.

The students that I got, some of them were really with the technology; some of them were not. So, we had to learn about email, we had to learn about databases, we had to learn about spreadsheets, and we had to learn about presentations. After the initial process of learning, they went out and selected one of their teachers that they felt comfortable with and talked to them about the GenWhy program. They got them to sign on to this. As a result, all of the students got one of their teachers. I think one student got their homeroom teacher, someone that at least they saw every day, to get them, get the students to help them develop one lesson. That is the idea, one lesson, where they would use technology, especially internet and computer technology, in the presentation of a lesson.

The kids, the students, really like the idea of teaching their teachers. They are very excited about that. The overall response of the faculty was very good. They were more or less open minded.

Each student developed their own web page with pictures, graphics, animation, color. They learned about netiquette: they learned about how to acknowledge internet sources, how to cite their resources on the internet. They learned history of the internet. Some of them who had no real prior experience using a computer got hands on. It got to the point where they could log on, and they could access information on the internet and showed how to apply that in their classroom setting. In other words, they helped one of their classroom teachers, like their English teacher or their math teacher or their science teacher to develop a lesson. It worked very well.

Hyman Field
The informal science education [program at NSF] is education for the public, everywhere from very young kids, pre-K, all the way through senior citizens. The purpose is really to get people excited about science, technology, mathematics; to help them understand the relationship of these fields to their everyday life; and for kids to carry that enthusiasm back into the classroom.

We are interested in reaching parents, getting them informed and aware of science, mathematics and technology, both so they know what is happening in the education system, the education reform.

...we want to reach the general public just to inform them about science, mathematics, technology, so that they understand it in their everyday lives, they are motivated to pursue it, and they can make informed decisions. I think the decision part of it is very important for people when they go into a local referendum and know how to vote when they have the background in science and technology.

John Hammer
We have been working since 1985 doing something that we call teacher training and rental. This involves finding a piece of technology that can be used in a classroom but often is not. Training teachers how to use this technology and, in the context of training them how to use that technology, training them ? excuse me, I should say educating them in this case, educating them about a lot of the science concepts related to the use of that technology. Example: Star Lab is a piece of equipment which was developed by a person who is now a Harvard professor, Phil Sadler. The Star Lab is essentially just an inflatable, portable planetarium. It can be used to teach a lot of terrific concepts in astronomy especially if used the right way. We recruit teachers who ? I consider them to be on the cusp of being really good teachers, teachers who are identifying themselves as science weak, in need, perhaps, of remediation. We bring them to the institution not specifically for remediation but to learn how to use this piece of equipment for their own classrooms. When they come to us, however, they also need to learn all of the concepts that they need to teach to their students. We teach them these concepts in the context of learning to use that piece of equipment.

For instance, lunar phases. How do we teach them how the phases of the moon really work. Well, it turns out that the Star Lab equipment is very well put together so that in order to set up the lunar phases with the Star Lab, you have to know how the lunar phases work. If you understand how to set up the lunar phases with the Star Lab, you have a very good understanding of why the moon goes through these apparent visual changes.

By using the equipment, we entice them to come to us. We put them in a non-threatening environment. They are not told that they are coming for remedial work. They learn a tremendous amount of science in the context of learning to use that equipment.

James Bradburne
If we go back to what sorts of goals we have for these programs of scientific and technological literacy, one of them is a more informed citizenry which means that we have to come to grips with the skills of compromise and negotiation at the same time as the skills of extrapolating and understanding what science can and cannot say, what technology can and cannot do, and how it can and cannot be used, and used in a rhetorical sense in the arguments that happen inevitably between interests in society which can be represented.

We saw it at the WTO in Seattle; we have seen that quite often, the fact that science and technology are only one part of a much broader rhetorical context in which people are arguing positions. That is something that kids have to learn, all people have to learn, adults also. Those skills are rarely taught in schools, and they are certainly often not in the science center, which tends to traditionally see its goal as communicating information about science not the process of understanding what science can and cannot do.