In This Issue
Engineering Culture
March 1, 1997 Volume 27 Issue 1
Most of the fundamental changes in our modern society and way of life have been brought about, directly or indirectly, by technology.

Technological Literacy (editorial)

Saturday, March 1, 1997

Author: George Bugliarello

Most of the fundamental changes in our modern society and way of life have been brought about, directly or indirectly, by technology. The list of changes is long and varied: from the nature of war--away from nuclear confrontation toward terrorism and low-intensity conflicts--to the globalization of manufacturing and services; from the Internet and instant and ubiquitous communications that challenge traditional territorial sovereignty, to the widespread demise of pyramidal hierarchies; from the urbanization of over half of the world's population, to the growing gap between the information rich and the information poor.

And these changes are just the beginning. They are no doubt only the pale forerunners of a future that we cannot quite fathom, because its leit motif will be change itself--change brought about by science and technology.

In recent years, a number of significant efforts have been undertaken to address the issue of scientific literacy, including the ambitious project on science standards of the National Research Council (1996). But the parallel question of technological literacy remains largely unaddressed in spite of its importance. In the population at large and in the media, science and technology are still confused with each other. Many schools often intend for technological literacy just the ability to use computers--far too narrow a view. The fundamental difference between science and technology is ignored or not appreciated. It is the difference between understanding and modifying nature, between searching for the whys of nature and engineering the artifacts that respond to our needs and extend our capabilities.

There are serious dangers in this lack of literacy. Citizens will remain disenfranchised unless they learn how to effectively access and use information. Society as a whole will be unable to respond to the great challenges of the future without at least a modicum of understanding, at the grass roots, of the nature of technology, of the opportunities and risks that technology presents to us, and of how to intelligently guide and use technological innovations. I would, for instance, argue that we would all benefit by knowing:

  • how major technological achievements shape our society (affecting health, jobs, population growth, etc.) and how society in turn shapes the technology it produces and uses;
  • how, in a democratic society, intelligent choices can be made about new technologies;
  • how public decisions affect the relation among research, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and, as a consequence, our economy and our environment; and
  • some of the basic concepts of engineering (such as design within constraints, systems, stability, time rate, optimization, efficiency, risk, safety factors).

These concepts and understandings are just as important to today's citizen as are basic scientific principles. They help explain, for example, the whys of traffic congestion and power blackouts, the pros and cons of automation, the best path to environmentally sustainable development, the shifts in potential job opportunities, what to look for in the performance of the infrastructure in its myriad components, and the engineering challenges of creating artificial organs. Above all, technological literacy can help instill in people a sense of possibilities in overcoming many of today's global social problems, from insufficient or substandard housing to malnutrition.

It is particularly important to find ways to incorporate at the appropriate levels of sophistication understandings of this kind in our K-12 school curricula. Technological literacy not only must complement the teaching of science, but also of civics, giving students a sense of important issues that they will be called to vote upon. Often today, they must do so without the tools to separate myth and propaganda from hard reality.

Given the dynamics of society and technology, the achievement of technological literacy will require considerable effort at multiple levels. It must become a goal not only for the K-12 system, but also for schools of education. After all, how can we expect teachers to convey to students the exciting interplay among math, science, and engineering that makes possible our technological world if they lack such an appreciation themselves?

The substantial network of U.S. science centers and museums, as well as public television and other entertainment media, have an important role to play as "informal" educators. The fact that President Clinton has made education a priority for his second term and is emphasizing the use of the Internet in the classroom is an encouraging sign.

Members of the National Academy of Engineering, by virtue of their leadership in academia and industry, are well placed to influence progress toward technological literacy. The NAE, under leadership from Interim President Bill Wulf, is exploring in a preliminary way how it might leverage its resources to meet the same goal. As a first step, in late February, the Academy sought input from a small, diverse group of experts involved in different aspects of technology education. Other types of information gathering are under way.

For a number of important reasons, including concern over U.S. economic prosperity and the health of the U.S. R&D enterprise, technological literacy will become an increasingly important focus of attention. The engineering community can, indeed must, let its voice be heard on this issue.

National Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

About the Author:George Bugliarello is chancellor of Polytechnic University and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.