Education for an Age of Technology (op-ed)

Author: Wm. A Wulf
Source: National Academy Op-ed Service
Date: June 26, 1998
Length: About 760 words

Think about how many recent stories in this newspaper have involved technology. Communications satellites in China. Disputes over Internet browsers. Observations of unusual weather patterns.

We live in a society that is addicted to technology. In fact, we are addicted to technological change, to the belief that technology will make things better tomorrow than they are today.

At the same time, many people are for the most part ignorant of how technologies work, even though major policy decisions are made every day that are either affected by or affect technology. That's a dangerous combination.

Every citizen ought to be technologically literate. This includes not only scientific and mathematical literacy but also understanding the economic, social, and political roles that technology plays in society and the process by which technology is created.

Yet scientific and mathematical literacy are seen as important educational objectives in the United States, and technological literacy is not.

Students in our elementary, junior high, and high schools rarely get more than a passing exposure to how devices are designed and operate. The consequences of this neglect can affect people their whole lives, from irritation with common appliances to an inability to participate intelligently in decisions about some of the most important issues of our day.

Examples are everywhere. A community debates the effects of a proposed waste incinerator. A school decides to outfit classrooms with computers. Homeowners want to conserve electricity.

People don't need to know all the specifics of a particular technology. But they should know enough of the facts and processes by which a technology was engineered to make rational, common-sense decisions.

An analogy with science is helpful here. The word "science" is actually used in two different ways. One refers to the body of scientific knowledge. The other refers to the process of discovery.

The fact that the Earth circles the sun in one year is part of the body of knowledge. How we know this, however, is the result of generating hypotheses, making observations, and conducting experiments that tested the hypotheses.

All too often, science education has meant only communicating the body of knowledge. That's why so many science courses are so dull. As my colleague Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, points out, students are expected to learn more new words in the average freshman biology course than they are in a foreign language course.

Worse than dull, this approach is incomplete. Science is more than specific knowledge. It is the process through which we validate what we know. This hands-on aspect of science is why the National Science Education Standards released two years ago emphasize inquiry-based instruction.

Technological literacy has many parallels to science literacy, but the terminology is different. Technology is the body of knowledge. The process of developing technologies is engineering.

To be technologically literate, schoolchildren need to understand both the process and the products of engineering. They should be able to use basic mathematics and science skills to design solutions to problems. They also should be familiar with the methods that engineers use to evaluate design alternatives in search of the one that best satisfies constraints related to cost, functionality, safety, reliability, manufacturability, ergonomics, and environmental impact.

Discussions of technology literacy often focus on a single subject: the use of computers in schools. Admittedly, computers and the Internet are important educational tools. But equating the use of computers with technological literacy is far too limited a view, given the extent to which technology has transformed our lives.

Making kids "as comfortable with a keyboard as a chalkboard," as President Clinton put it in a recent speech, is a key aim of a technologically literate society. But it is only one element of a much broader goal.

The United States has good national standards for science and mathematics education. Comparable attention now needs to be devoted to the other components of technological literacy.

Standards for what is known as technology education are now being developed. But technology education need not be a separate course in schools. Rather, considerations of technology should be integrated into mathematics, science, history, language arts, and other topics -- as is the case in real life.

People rely on technology for transportation, communication, medical care, entertainment, the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the buildings they use, and the work they do. Ignorance about such a fundamental feature of modern life is not healthy for individuals or for societies.

About the Author
Wm. A. Wulf is President of the National Academy of Engineering, in Washington, D.C.