in discussing each policy or program, we discuss its possible implications for laboratory experiences.


Policy makers, scientists, and educators have expressed growing concern about the nation’s scientific literacy and the international competitiveness of its science and technology workforce. Here we describe recent trends in public understanding of science and in high school science education, which provides the foundational knowledge for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Public Understanding of Science

Major science education reports published in the 1990s advocated broad scientific literacy for all students, including understanding of science concepts and of the processes and nature of science (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; National Research Council, 1996). This type of broadly defined scientific literacy is an essential part of a liberal education. It can provide a strong knowledge base for high school graduates, preparing them for further science and technology education and also to work and live as citizens in an increasingly technological society. The available evidence suggests, however, that levels of scientific literacy are low and improving them is a slow and difficult process.

Northwestern University Professor Jon Miller has developed a systematic approach to defining and measuring public scientific literacy, in surveys conducted for the National Science Foundation (NSF) over the past two decades (Miller, 2004). Defining scientific literacy as the level of understanding required to read and comprehend the science section of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or other comparable major newspapers and magazines, Miller uses several measures of this understanding (Miller, 2004).

The survey results reveal slight improvements in public understanding of science. The percentage of U.S. adults with a minimal understanding of the nature of scientific research (From your point of view, what does it mean to study something scientifically?) increased from 12 percent in 1957 to 21 percent in 1999. The fraction of U.S. adults who understood experimentation, including the reasons for using control and experimental groups in medical research, also grew, from 22 percent in 1993 to 35 percent in 1999.

Over the past 15 years, Miller and colleagues studied public understanding of four specific scientific concepts—molecules, DNA, radiation, and the nature of the universe—that often appear in news stories but are rarely explained in depth. They found that understanding of these concepts is slowly increasing but remains low. For example, the percentage of U.S.

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