Friday, October 31, 2014

STEM & STEAM Not Hysteria: Why we need to think critically

There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness...To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country. – George Washington
A nation that expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization…expects what never was and never will be. – Thomas Jefferson
The current public discussion of Ebola quarantines has me throwing bipartisan shoes at the TV. I don’t want to discuss the political posturing, which is bad enough but expected.

I want to hone in on the sad state of our general education and the absence of critical thinking. Founders Washington and Jefferson warned us and gave us sage advice, which we seem to be ignoring at our peril.

OK, what right do I have to be spouting off about Ebola, science, education, and critical thinking? Here are a few bio tidbits:
Rebecca the Science Teacher
  • Trained as biochemical geneticist
  • Medical researcher
  • Taught biological and physical sciences for ten years in high school and college
  • Consult to a county STEM board (supports programs in Science Technology, Engineering and Math)
  • Board member, GeekiGirls (supports girls' interest in STEM and the Arts, STEAM)
  • Foreign Member, St. Petersburg Engineering Academy.
So I'm an educated layman, trained in critical thinking, OK?

Let's take a quick look at Ebola and the missing critical thinking here in the U.S. Ebola is a devastating disease we mostly ignored here until it entered big cities and spread quickly in three West African countries. Volunteers from around the world have gone to these countries to contribute their skills to fragile and collapsing health systems there. They are working in very primitive conditions in places where electricity and potable and running water are not the norm and local practices exacerbate the spread of the disease.
     Fact 1: People only spread the virus by direct contact with bodily fluids, most commonly diarrhea, blood, and vomit.
     Fact 2: When people have no symptoms they cannot spread the virus.
     Fact 3: The incubation period is 21 days in humans.
     Fact 4: The Centers for Disease Control have issued new guidelines based on the degrees of exposure to people with the virus and supported by international health groups.

The hysterical moves by the governors of New York and New Jersey, other states, and the U.S. military to quarantine everyone returning from work in the region ignores the facts, ignores the science, ignores the advice of medical experts, and ignores critical thinking.

Listening to TV reporters, news readers, and "hosts" stir the pot of fear and misinformation is more than inane, it is dangerous. The rampant speculation, ignorant questions and comments, and refusal to listen to science are scary. The fact that people fall for it points to what many studies show; the dire state of science and critical thinking education in this country is a threat to democracy. Even the college-educated reporters and commentators demonstrate a lack of scientific understanding and thinking a 7th grader should have mastered.

This is nothing new. When the Russians launched Sputnik and caught the U.S. flatfooted, there were no other girls in my physics and advanced math classes and many college-bound boys avoided these hard classes. Government created the National Defense Education Act and the National Science Foundation created four new science curricula. I went through graduate school with an NDEA loan, which I repaid by teaching, including the new science curricula.

I have a couple of suggestions:
  1. Create modern programs, similar to the post-Sputnik ones, to assure every student, in every school, gets grounding in real science and critical thinking. Emphasize teaching elementary and middle school teachers to teach the understanding, application, and love of science. Science must be learned hands on with experiments and investigation. We must teach everyone to think critically.
  2. Governors and other officials, it's time to admit you reacted and did not base your moves on science nor think critically about the situation. George Washington said it best,"To err is nature, to rectify error is glory."
  3. Reinstate literature, the arts, science, and social science as the centerpieces of K-12 education. A recent study confirmed music study increases other intellectual capacities. In an era when schools routinely cut all the arts education in favor of drilling for standardized tests, real education is sacrificed.
Everyone needs STEM and STEAM. We all need a well-rounded education to function as citizens and leaders in our complex world. We must be critical thinkers, learning that discipline from the sciences and the arts. The alternative is a nation that can be whipped into hysteria by the ignorant and the evil.

Food for thought...yes, thought.   

Learn the basic skills of critical thinking. Join me for a technique-packed webinar and white paper access.

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(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein and Advantage Leadership, Inc. 

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