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Knowing little about how things work.

Knowing little about how things work

At a time when television broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, advertisements and political speeches are regularly sprinkled with technical terms, the U.S. public often has little idea what the terms mean. A recent probe of technological literacy conducted for the National Science Foundation (NSF) shows that only 31 percent of about 2,000 people surveyed by telephone have a clear understanding of radiation, 27 percent understand what gross national product (GNP) means and 24 percent understand what computer software is. Just one in five think they know how a telephone works.

The same poll, conducted late last year by Jon D. Miller, director of the public opinion laboratory at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, shows that about two in five people believe that rocket launchings have affected the weather, that space vehicles from other civilizations have visited the earth and that lucky numbers exist. Overall, on a rough index of technological literacy, people from 18 to 24 years old -- those most recently in high school -- had a significantly lower rating than all other age groups except those over 65.

"It is clear that young Americans just emerging from their formal education are not as likely to be technologically literate as somewhat older adults," says Miller. He presented his preliminary survey results last week in Baltimore at a conference on technological literacy.

"The technologically literate person should understand how basic technologies work, which aspects re changeable and which are not, and some of the impacts and implications of major technologies," Miller says. "Increasingly the issues on the public agenda are going to be issues that involve some aspect of technology."

Ironically, these results come at a time when public interest in science is relatively high. In another recently published NSF survey, almost half of the respondents report great interest in new inventions and scientific discoveries. Young people, regardless of grade level, are particularly interested.

Nevertheless, "interest is not the same as literacy or competence," says Erich Bloch, NSF director. About three quarters of those interested in science and technology admit they don't know very much about either one, he adds.

"What we have," says Miller, "is a large number of people who believe in science, who have unrestrained faith in it, but who haven't the foggiest notion why it happens." The biggest problem is not hostility to science, but that people deal with it as if it were magic, he says. Moreover, people tend to confuse real or likely technologies and fictional ones.

"Our concern," says Rustum Roy, who chaired the meeting and directs the NSF-funded "Science through Science, Technology and Society" project at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, "is that we have not been able to educate 99 percent of the public to appreciate technological issues." A larger segment of the population should understand the choices and values inherent in today's and future technologies, he says. "We must insist that school systems teach it."

"What we're talking about is a redefinition of what's fundamental fo learning," says Cecily C. Selby of New York University. Technology studies are generally not part of school curricula. Too much emphasis is put on the theoretical, she says, and too little on how things work.

However, notes F. James Rutherford, education officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, based in Washington, D.C., "It's not clear at all what we need to know collectively across the whole range of science, technology and social behavior . . . in order to lead rich, full lives."

"You don't have to be a scientist or a technician to vote," says Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado. But, he adds, "we have to make sure that we are making our science and technology decision correctly."
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Title Annotation:surveys of technological literacy
Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 22, 1986
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