Context for Technological Literacy
Areview of the social, political, and educational context for technological literacy can reveal the opportunities for as well as the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving it. For instance, we can look at the historical role of technology—how technology has changed and how our relationship to it has changed over time. Another factor is people’s ideas about technology, specifically, whether or not they have a broad conception of technology consistent with technological literacy. We must also consider the influence of K-12 schooling to determine if students are being afforded an opportunity to develop the three dimensions of technological literacy. In the political arena, we might ask if policy makers have made technological literacy a priority and how they approach technological decisions. We must also try to determine what people actually know about technology and how it is developed.
The Human Connection to Technology
Five hundred years ago, when Europeans first explored the New World, they crossed the sea in wind-powered ships, rode the trail in horse-drawn wagons, and carried muskets for hunting and protection. From our point of view, these technologies were quite simple and easy to comprehend. Although only people with special training knew how to build a ship or sail one, almost everyone could understand what a ship did and how and why. Three centuries later, when the newly established United States was looking westward toward Louisiana and the Pacific, the technologies in use were substantially the same. Although improvements
and refinements had been made, a time traveler from 1500 would have had little difficulty adapting to the devices and tools of 1800.
Fast forward another hundred years, however, and it is a different story. By the end of the nineteenth century, a panoply of new technologies had appeared that were qualitatively different from earlier technologies: steamboats and ironclad ships, the telegraph and telephone, the transcontinental railroad, the phonograph, the internal combustion engine, gasoline and other petrochemicals, aspirin and a wealth of other drugs, the automobile, and the machine gun. The world of 1900 was much more dependent upon these machines and tools, which posed challenges that were entirely new. A competent, contributing member of society had to understand and use an increasing number of technological devices.
That pattern continued and accelerated throughout the twentieth century. Today, technology and technological systems are integral to everything we do and can do (Box 3-1). Our homes, our food and water, our jobs, our travel, our communications, our entertainment, our national security are all made possible by and depend on technology.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a panoply of new technologies had appeared that were qualitatively different from earlier technologies.
At the same time that technology has become ubiquitous, people
BOX 3-1 The Naked City
Technology is so woven into the fabric of modern life that it has become all but invisible. People look at it without seeing it. But try this thought experiment. Take a large city and remove everything provided by technology. What is left?
The buildings are gone, along with their electrical, plumbing, and ventilation systems, phone lines and phones, computers, televisions, furniture, appliances, and every other manufactured product.
All food is gone and all water, except the puddles still standing from last night’s rain. The air is still there, but it is noticeably fresher without the gasoline and diesel exhaust, fumes from paints, cleaners, and other volatile liquids, and all particulate matter produced by industrial activity.
Cars and trucks, buses and trains, bicycles and baby carriages are gone. Roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and other components of our transportation infrastructure—gone. The grass, as natural as it seems, has been grown from seed or sod produced on grass farms, so it too is gone. The weeds remain, but most of the trees, bushes, and flowers, which were raised in nurseries and transplanted, are gone.
Dogs and cats, bred over millennia for specialized traits—gone. The rats and pigeons, which have also been shaped by human activity, but in this case inadvertently, remain, along with insects, squirrels, and other creatures that live alongside humans but are not bred by humans.
Shoes and clothing are gone. So are briefcases, purses, wallets, watches, glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids, wheelchairs, prosthetic devices, heart valves, pacemakers, artificial joints, and all drugs and medicines, both legal and illegal. Any semblance of a health care system—from physicians and nurses to hospitals and ambulances—vanishes. In fact, if it were not for medical technology, many people would also be gone. And of the remaining few, not many would survive for more than a few weeks without the products of human innovation.
have become less and less interested in or able to look below the surface of technology. The reasons for this are easy to find. One important factor is the increasing complexity of technology, which makes it difficult for anyone but experts to work with or understand the technological devices and systems in use today. Two hundred years ago, the family vehicle was a horse-drawn wagon, which was simple and straightforward enough that anyone who examined it could easily understand how it worked. Today the family car is so complicated that parts of it can only be analyzed and serviced with the aid of computerized diagnostic equipment and other specialized devices. Faced with this complexity, many people no longer try to understand how technology works. Instead, we must be content simply learning how to make it do what we want it to. Even specialists who deal with certain technologies—auto mechanics, for instance, or computer technicians—must rely on other technologies they may or may not understand.
Most modern technologies are designed so users do not have to know how they work in order to operate them. We get into our cars, turn the key, put them into drive, and step on the gas without any awareness of the computer-controlled fuel-injection system or the antilock brakes. We click on an icon to retrieve our e-mail with no thought of the complex hardware and software necessary to perform that task. This is hardly surprising; we would get very little done each day if we had to think about the details of our technological helpers before putting them to work.
As technology has become more complex, society has become more specialized. As a result, all of us know more but about fewer things. We turn to plumbers, electricians, appliance repairmen, cable TV installers, telephone workers, and other specialists to service or repair our technological devices for the simple reason that we don’t have time to learn everything we need to know to take care of them. A doctor or a lawyer or a secretary or a bus driver each has specialized knowledge, but even they tend to learn only as much about technology as they need to do their jobs and, perhaps, to maintain a minimal level of technical competence in their personal lives.
As technology has become more complex, society has become more specialized.
Several other factors have contributed to the lack of hands-on experience with technology. When Americans lived on the farm, they were closely involved with the technologies they used. In general, as the population has shifted from rural to urban and suburban areas, people have become less technologically self-sufficient. In the workplace, increasing computerization and automation have made it possible for fewer
workers to control more machines, thus reducing the number of people who actually work with machines. At the same time, many jobs have shifted to the service sector, which now accounts for nearly 80 percent of the gross domestic product and a little more than 80 percent of jobs (DOC, 2001). The technical knowledge and capability required of workers in those sectors of the economy that still rely on technically trained people—such as defense, aerospace, and manufacturing—has increased significantly (BLS, 1999). Many employers in these sectors cannot find enough well-trained technicians and have had to invest substantial resources in retraining the people they hire or hire people from abroad (NSF, 1994).
Misconceptions About the Nature of Technology
The nature of technology has changed dramatically in the past hundred years. Indeed, the very idea of technology as we now conceive it is relatively new. For most of human history, technology was mainly the province of craftsmen who passed their know-how down from generation to generation, gradually improving designs and adding new techniques and materials. At the beginning of the Scientific Revolution in the mid-1500s, inventors began using a more rational, rigorous approach to the development of new products and began to apply insights from the physical sciences (Bernal, 1971). Nevertheless, technology remained mostly a trial-and-error discipline. As recently as the late 1800s, most technological progress was made by professional inventors, such as Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a new approach to technology appeared, exemplified by Charles Proteus Steinmetz, who shaped the new field of electricity generation begun by Edison (Hughes, 1983). Unlike Edison, who was an inventor, Steinmetz was an electrical engineer. Instead of relying on intuition and trial and error, he and others like him used detailed calculations based on the latest scientific understanding. They laid out quantitative rules to guide their designs and those of others. Although trial and error was—and still is—an important aspect of technological innovation, the process of engineering design and development has become increasingly systematic and professionalized.
This change, combined with other trends, transformed technology—indeed, created technology as we know it today. By the beginning
of the twentieth century, technology had become a large-scale enterprise that depended on large stores of knowledge and know-how, too much for any one person to master. Large organizations were now required for the development, manufacture, and operation of new technologies. Complex networks of interdependent technologies were developed, such as the suite of technologies for the automobile. These include gas and oil refineries, filling stations and repair shops, tire manufacturers, automobile assembly plants, the highway system, and many more. The government began to play a larger role in shaping technology through technological policies and regulations.
The meaning of the word “technology” evolved to reflect these changes (Winner, 1977). In the nineteenth century, technology referred simply to the practical arts used to create physical products, everything from wagon wheels and cotton cloth to telephones and steam engines. In the twentieth century, the meaning of the word was expanded to include everything involved in satisfying human material needs and wants, from factories and the organizations that operate them to scientific knowledge, engineering know-how, and technological products themselves.
As the definition of technology changed, its meaning became more vague, leaving room for misconceptions that sometimes led to questionable conclusions. One widely held misconception relates to how we perceive the relationship among science, engineering, and technology. A second is a technological determinism, a tendency to see technological development as largely independent of human influence.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, technology had become a large-scale enterprise that depended on large stores of knowledge and know-how, too much for any one person to master.
Technology, Engineering, and Science
Because science has been central to the development of new technologies and the improvement of existing technologies, many people believe that technology is merely the application of science. This idea can be traced to the development of the atomic bomb and radar, two World War II projects in which scientists donned engineering hats to create major technologies almost from scratch. Both efforts were spearheaded by scientists, primarily physicists (Buderi, 1996; Rhodes, 1986).
However, it takes much more than applied science to create a new technology. Technology is a product and a process involving both science and engineering, and the goals of these two disciplines are different. Science aims to understand the “why” and “how” of nature, engineering seeks to shape the natural world to meet human needs and wants.
Engineering, therefore, could be called “design under constraint,” with science—the laws of nature—being one of a number of limiting factors engineers must take into account (Wulf, 1998). Other constraints include cost, reliability, safety, environmental impact, ease of use, available human and material resources, manufacturability, government regulations, laws, and even politics. In short, technology necessarily involves science and engineering.
Yet in public discourse, innovations and events that have a significant technological component are often described as science. Take the building and launching of the Hubble Space Telescope. Although its purpose is scientific—to gather data about the universe and its origins— the telescope itself is the product of science and engineering. Similarly, the development of new drugs is often misidentified solely as science. Obviously, a great deal of scientific research underlies the development of a new drug, but that research is put to work toward a technological end. Even in the computer industry—the first thing that comes to many people’s minds when they think of technology—cramming more transistors onto a chip or more memory onto a magnetic disk is a technological, rather than a scientific, advance.
In public discourse, innovations and events that have a significant technological component are often described as science.
It is not surprising that many people attribute technological advances exclusively to science. After all, as was noted in Chapter 1, science and technology are closely related. But the confusion is significant because it indicates that many people do not appreciate the combined role of science, engineering, and technology in shaping modern life. A sense of this complementary relationship is crucial to many policy decisions, for example how public research dollars should be allocated.
Another prevalent misconception is that technological change is somehow disconnected from human influence. Technology seems to appear “out of the blue” with little if any input from its intended users. Technology has a dramatic, direct, but one-way effect on our lives. In other words, technology affects society, but society does not affect technology. This idea, sometimes called technological determinism, suggests that technology follows its own course independent of human direction (Smith and Marx, 1994; Winner, 1977).
Technological determinism is based on a misperception of the central role people play in the design and uses of technology. Members of
Congress, company CEOs and the scientists and engineers who work for them, and the consuming public all have a say in what technology should do, what it is capable of doing, and what it actually does. Technology mirrors our values, as well as our flaws. It is merely an agglomeration of parts until we imbue it with purpose and direction (Lafollette and Stine, 1991; Winner, 1977).
If we perceive technology through the lens of technological determinism, we cannot weigh the risks or costs associated with a technology or its benefits. Certain technologies are used in ways that some people find objectionable or that result in unintended and sometimes undesirable consequences (Postman, 1993; Tenner, 1996). And almost always, technologies are more advantageous for some people, animals, plants, generations, or purposes than others. If one views technology as being outside human control, these considerations may never come up.
Almost always, technologies are more advantageous for some people, animals, plants, generations, or purposes than others.
Thoughtful consideration of possible advantages and disadvantages is extremely important, therefore, before a technology is developed. At the same time, we must recognize that perfectly sensible uses of a technology can sometimes have undesirable consequences and that these may not show up for decades or even longer. We may decide, therefore, that not every possible technological advance—human cloning, for example—should be pursued. Or, conversely, we may decide a technology should be developed for the greater good, even though a vocal minority opposes it. In either case, the decision is ours!
Technological Studies in K-12
Developing technological literacy will require early and regular contact with technology in the school setting. Unfortunately, technology has not been the focus of study in K-12 in the United States.
Only 14 states require some form of technology education, usually affiliated with career or technical preparation, for K-12 students (Newberry, 2001). The Massachusetts Board of Education recently added a combined engineering/technology component to its K-12 curriculum, becoming the first state to explicitly include engineering content (Boston Herald, December 20, 2000). Elsewhere in the country, the availability of technological studies in grades K-12 varies widely, depending on the school district. A few schools offer stand-alone courses in all grade levels, but most school districts pay little or no attention to it. This is in stark contrast to the situation in some other nations, such as the Czech Repub-
lic, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, where technology education courses are required in middle school or high school (ITEA, unpublished).
Technology education is a relatively new academic subject with roots in the industrial arts movement that began in the early twentieth century. Industrial arts education was intended to develop the skills, including an adeptness with tools, that students would need for jobs in industry. For many students, these classes were purely avocational or recreational.
As metalworking, woodworking, and other shop classes came to seem less and less relevant in the second half of the twentieth century, some industrial arts teachers began to broaden the scope of their classes to include general information about technology—the basic characteristics of a technology, the engineering design process, and how technology shapes society. Although some curricula now include separate classes in technology, many teachers and school officials still think of it as a vocational rather than academic subject (Rogers, 1995). This idea has been reinforced by the longstanding perception that vocational and technology classes—and the students enrolled in them—are of lower status than college-preparatory classes (Gray et al., 1995).
A recent survey of technology education programs in the United States reveals a number of trends, including a shift from the development of tool-related skills to the development of problem-solving abilities, a greater emphasis on the application of science and mathematics, and greater involvement by female faculty and students (Sanders, 2001). A significant minority (40 percent) of technology education programs is still identified most closely with vocational education rather than general education. Many of these programs are, in fact, funded by the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-332).
A second limiting factor is the small number of teachers trained to teach about technology. There are roughly 40,000 technology education teachers in the United States, mostly at the middle school or high school level (Newberry, 2001; Weston, 1997). By comparison, about 1.7 million teachers in U.S. K-12 schools (including all elementary school teachers and roughly 150,000 secondary science teachers) are responsible for teaching science (NCES, 2000). Survey data suggest that the percentage of technology teacher positions that goes unfilled is greater than that for the overall teacher workforce (Litowitz, 1998; Weston, 1997). Fewer
than 80 programs in the United States are granting degrees in technology education (ITEA, 2001).
A third limiting factor is inadequate preparation of other teachers to teach about technology. Schools of education spend virtually no time developing technological literacy in those who will eventually stand in front of the classroom. As noted elsewhere in this report, the integration of technology content into other subject areas, such as science, mathematics, social studies, English, and art, could greatly boost technological literacy. Without teachers trained to carry out this integration, however, technology is likely to remain an afterthought in American education. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is attempting to address this problem by encouraging a dialogue between academic leaders in engineering and education. As a first step, IEEE convened a group of engineering and education school deans in October 2001 to discuss ways to enhance teacher preparation.
Schools of education spend virtually no time developing technological literacy in those who will eventually stand in front of the classroom.
The paucity of technological studies in mainstream education in the United States is reflected on standardized tests in the traditional areas, such as reading, writing, and math. For example, the Third International Math and Science Study, an ambitious attempt to assess students’ understanding of science and math concepts, included virtually no questions related to the understanding, application, or history of technology. Neither the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that tracks changes in knowledge in a number of areas, nor the two major college entrance examinations, the SAT and ACT, tests student knowledge of technological concepts, history, or processes.
Because school performance and opportunities for postsecondary education are based largely on these test scores, few administrators are interested in introducing a new subject that does not appear on the standardized tests into the curriculum. Unfortunately, this can prolong the problem. Questions about technology are not likely to be included on standardized tests until technology education is either made a standard school subject or technology content is integrated into other subject areas.
A beginning has been made, however. K-12 students are sometimes introduced to technological concepts through other subject areas, especially science. The two sets of national K-12 science standards developed in the 1990s include specific benchmarks related to technology and design, and a small number of rigorously developed instructional materials that reinforce connections between science and technology have
been developed (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996); but they are used in only a small percentage of schools.
Ironically, although many so-called hands-on science experiments engage students in technology-related experiences rather than scientific ones, they are not identified as such by either students or teachers. A classic example of this is the “egg-drop” challenge, an exercise in which students are asked to devise a container that can keep an egg from breaking when it is dropped from a certain height. Although the experiment illustrates science concepts, such as momentum and force, teachers usually stress the design, materials, and problem-solving elements of the exercise.
Technological concepts are also addressed in K-12 standards for mathematics, history, language arts, geography, visual arts, civics, economics, health, and behavioral studies (Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, 2000). And the standards promulgated by the Council for Basic Education and the National Center on Education and the Economy for a variety of school subjects—including those related to technology, problem solving, and design—have been combined into single publications (CBE, 1998; National Center on Education and the Economy, 1997). However, with a few exceptions, the technology components of these standards have not been translated into curricula or instructional materials. An analysis of some highly rated high school American history textbooks, for example, found almost no mention of technology (Cole, 1996). Given the extent of technology-related changes in society in the last 100 years, such as dramatically increased lifespan, the omission is striking. In one positive development, the Sloan Foundation has funded a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a college-level U.S. history book that will treat science and technology as central forces in the nation’s history.
An analysis of some highly rated high school American history textbooks found almost no mention of technology.
At the national level, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been the primary funding source for the development of K-12 instructional materials. Since 1994, NSF’s instructional materials division has invested about $29 million in some 62 projects (personal communication, G. Salinger, National Science Foundation, August 2, 2001). The agency’s spending on technology-related materials has hovered between about 5 and 11 percent of the total for instructional materials in technology, mathematics, and science. NSF’s investment in technology teacher enhancement was about $13 million during the same period, about 2 percent of the total spent on teacher enhancement in any one year.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has for decades considered technology education equal in importance to mathematics and science education. Along with NSF, NASA was instrumental in providing early encouragement and, later, funding to the International Technology Education Association, which has produced K-12 content standards for the study of technology. Although NASA does not fund extramural curriculum development, it supports a broad array of teacher, student, and curriculum enhancement activities associated with NASA facilities and projects throughout the country (NASA, 2001).
Learning About Technology
Exposure to technological concepts and hands-on, design-related activities in the elementary and secondary grades are the most likely ways to help children acquire the kinds of knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, and capabilities consistent with technological literacy. Unfortunately, there is very little information about how children or adults learn concepts in technology and how, or whether, that learning differs from other types of cognition (Cheek, 2000). Much of what is known about how people learn comes from research focused on people with expertise, that is, a combination of conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge accumulated over time (NRC, 1999b). Studies of engineers and engineering students have focused on two areas of learning relevant to technological literacy: problem solving and design.
Problem Solving. Successful problem solving in engineering or technology education requires both the exercise of knowledge specific to the problem at hand and knowledge that transcends the particular problem or even the discipline.
There is very little information about how children or adults learn concepts in technology and how, or whether, that learning differs from other types of cognition.
Hegarty (1991), for example, in a study of knowledge of mechanics, showed that solving real problems with mechanics requires very complex cognitive processes. The choice of a suitable mental model, or problem schema, requires considerable conceptual and procedural knowledge, some of which cannot be easily explained.
Tain-Fung et al. (1996) tested general and technological problem-solving skills in college students pursuing humanities, engineering, and computer science degrees and found no differences in terms of general problem-solving skills. On the technological problem-solving test, however, the computer science students, followed by the engineering students, had the highest test scores. Cooperative learning and problem
solving are typical elements of technology education, and both have been shown to improve the retention and assimilation of knowledge in a variety of engineering education contexts (Bernold et al., 2000; Catalano and Catalano, 1999; Demetry and Groccia, 1997; Hoit and Ohland, 1998).
Design. Design is a central component of the practice of engineering and a key element in technology education. Good design reflects the designer’s tacit knowledge of materials, artifacts, and systems as they relate to one another. The design activities that have been introduced into K-12 technology education in the United States are based on design and technology syllabi and associated curriculum materials developed in Great Britain. So-called design briefs that lay out the functional requirements for a technological design are being introduced into K-12 technology education. Many articles, even in research journals in the field of technology education, strongly advocate the use of design briefs in the school curriculum but do not provide empirical evidence of their effectiveness.
To address these issues, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has begun working with educators in a variety of disciplines to define a research agenda focused on how people learn about technology (AAAS, 2000). The project, which is funded by NSF, is also exploring the most effective methods for teaching technology.
Overemphasis on Computers and Information Technology
The one exception to the general weakness of technological studies in grades K-12 is in the area of computers and information technology. Schools across the country have spent large amounts of money on computers, computer networks, and the Internet, much of it for educational technology—that is, computers and other technological devices used as aids in teaching, practice work, and testing. Only one unit in the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of Educational Technology, promotes the use of technology as a teaching tool, but not the teaching of technology. Since the launch of the Technology Literacy Challenge in 1996, the federal government has invested more than $2 billion1 in
programs to increase the use of educational technology in U.S. classrooms (DoEd, 2000).
Many people, even people in the educational system, confuse educational technology with technology education, but the two are quite different. The purpose of technology education is to teach students about technology, while the purpose of educational technology is to use technology to help students learn more about whatever subject they are studying. The other purpose of having computers in schools is to teach students to use computer technologies, from running programs and sending e-mail to setting up websites and surfing the Internet. A number of high-profile reports in the past several years have reinforced the notion that technological literacy is mostly or entirely concerned with the development of computer-related skills (e.g., PCAST, 1997; 21st Century Workforce Commission, 2000). Some limited efforts are also being made to expand the notion of computer literacy to include a basic understanding of the associated hardware and software (Associated Colleges of the South, 2001; NRC, 1999a).
Many people, even people in the educational system, confuse educational technology with technology education, but the two are quite different.
One might suppose that any sort of technology education in the schools, even if it is restricted to computers and information technology, would make it easier to gain acceptance for other sorts of technology education, but the reality is that the use of “technology education” to mean learning about computers and of “technological literacy” to mean facility with computers confuses the issue and leads people to believe that “technology” means little more than computers and related devices. Thus, many people believe that their schools already teach about technology, when in reality they teach only about computers.
A Policy Blind Spot
For the most part, U.S. policy making has rarely addressed the issue of technological literacy. Excluding legislation focused on the use of computers as educational tools, only a handful of bills introduced in Congress in the past 15 years refer to technology education or technological literacy. Virtually none of these bills has become law, except for measures related to vocational education. Three education reform bills were introduced in 2000 by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), one of the two members of Congress who is a physicist. The bills were focused mostly on science and mathematics education but also included provisions that would have strengthened the training of technology teachers and provided
incentives for schools to hire them. The bills did not reach the floor in the 2000 legislative session, but Ehlers reintroduced them at the beginning of the next Congress. In the same session, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) proposed legislation that would, among other things, establish partnerships for enhancing elementary and secondary science and mathematics education. The bill is focused on science and mathematics, but several of the provisions make reference to technology education.
The relative absence of legislative attention to the issue of technological literacy is striking considering the number of issues with a technological component that come before Congress. An unscientific sampling of bills that made it to the president’s desk during the 106th Congress reveals the great variety of topics for which an understanding of science and technology would have been useful (Table 3-1). Only 24 members, or slightly more than 4 percent, of the 107th Congress have educational backgrounds in medicine, science, or engineering (AMA, 2001; ASME, 2001).
Of course, Congress does not act in a vacuum. Members can call on the services of the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress, for research on specific topics. Lobbyists, many of whom represent the interests of technology-based industries, are another source of potentially valuable information for congressional decision makers. Members and their staffs also rely on think tanks, such as RAND and MITRE, and advocacy organizations that conduct policy studies, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, for information. Congress and the executive branch often call on the National Academies to examine technical and policy issues in the sciences, engineering, and medicine.
The relative absence of legislative attention to the issue of technological literacy is striking considering the number of issues with a technological component that come before Congress.
For more than two decades, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was an important source of in-house advice on technological matters. OTA conducted nonpartisan studies of the impacts and possible future directions of technology development. The office was abolished by Congress in 1995. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the other physicist in Congress, and a bipartisan group of about 30 representatives sponsored legislation (H.R. 2148) midway through the 107th Congress that would reestablish OTA.
At the state level, lawmakers appear to be slightly more aware of technology education as a school subject. A keyword search of bills under consideration by the states from 1996 to 1999 identified 46 that contained the words “technology” and “education” or the phrase “technological
TABLE 3-1 Technology-Related Bills Approved by the 106th Congress *
literacy” (personal communication, D.S. Potestio, National Conference of State Legislatures, October 16, 2000). Half were concerned with the use or purchase of information technology, mostly computers. The other half dealt with the support or creation of technology education, applied technology, or industrial arts programs.
Like their federal counterparts, state-level policy makers also require information and advice about science and technology in order to make sound decisions. As states have assumed increasing responsibility for economic development, environmental protection, transportation, health care, job creation, and education, this advice has become even more important. In an effort to leverage technology for economic growth, for example, more than $400 million was invested by states in 1995 to support public-private technology programs (State Science and Technology Institute, 1996). Since then, the amount has certainly increased greatly.
In the 1970s, through its State Science, Engineering and Technology program, NSF spent more than $5 million to help state legislatures increase their technical capabilities. By the time the program ended in 1981, a number of statehouses had begun to support their own programs to integrate scientific and technical information into the decision-making process. Four of 43 state legislative research agencies that responded to a 1998 survey by the Council of State Governments (1999) indicated that they keep scientists, engineers, or statisticians on staff. The majority of the agencies seek out scientific and technical advice on an ad hoc basis through specialists, task forces, state universities, and interns and fellows.
Like their federal counterparts, state-level policy makers also require information and advice about science and technology in order to make sound decisions.
One study of legislators in 11 states found a great—and mostly unmet—need for reliable technical information (Jones et al., 1996). Partly in response to the need for better technical information, in 1999 the National Conference of State Legislatures established a Center for Technical Information (CTI), a nonpartisan information resource for technology- and engineering-related issues for the nation’s 7,500 state legislators. The center ceased operation in early 2001 following an unsuccessful fundraising effort (personal communication, L. Morandi, National Conference of State Legislatures, June 19, 2001).
The need for sound science and technology information in the states is also apparent at the executive-branch level. One study of the role of states in science and technology (S&T) concluded that only a few governors had a single source of advice on the broad range of S&T issues (CCSTG, 1992). The report recommended that every governor designate an S&T advisor and that every state establish an independent S&T
advisory council. Currently, about half of the governors have access to some form of S&T information, either through a formally appointed advisor or advisory group or through an informal arrangement with an individual or organization (personal communication, D. Berglund, State Science & Technology Institute, October 25, 2001).
Currently, about half of the governors have access to some form of S&T information.
Thus, although there appears to be a recognition at the federal and state levels of the need for information and advice about technological issues, this concern has not led to a recognition of the value of technological literacy for the population at large.
Uncertainties About What We Know
Information about what Americans know about technology is hard to come by. A variety of local, state, national, and even international tests measure what U.S. schoolchildren know about mathematics, science, and American history, but few attempts have been made to assess technological knowledge. Similarly, few efforts have been made to determine what the public at large knows about technology, beyond the area of computers.
Technological Literacy of U.S. Students
One has to go back 12 years to find data that shed any light on U.S. students’ attitudes and knowledge about technology. In 1988, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University administered a 100-question survey, the Pupils’ Attitude Toward Technology (PATT), to more than 10,000 middle school and high school students in seven states (Bame and Dugger, 1989). More than three-quarters of the students who took part in the study were either taking or had taken a technology education or industrial arts class. Two-thirds of the questions were intended to assess attitudes, and one-third were meant to gauge knowledge of technological concepts. The PATT survey was developed and first used in the Netherlands in 1984. Since then, versions of the PATT survey have been used in more than 25 other countries (Bame et al., 1993).
The U.S. researchers focused on the relationship between certain demographic characteristics and responses to related questions. They found, for instance, that boys were more interested in technology than girls, that students’ concepts of technology became increasingly accurate
with age, and that in general students had a fairly narrow conception of technology. Certain responses were particularly revealing. For example, in reaction to the statement, “In my opinion, technology is not very old,” 35 percent of students agreed, and another 27 percent did not know if it was true or not. When asked to consider the statement, “Technology has always to do with mass production,” 30 percent agreed, and 35 percent were unsure. Fifty-four percent of students agreed that, “When I think of technology I mostly think of computers,” while 30 percent disagreed. These responses suggest that students had a very narrow conception of technology, associated largely with computers, and had only a limited understanding of technology’s influence on human history. The results are disturbing, especially considering that most of the participants in the study had some exposure to formal technology education courses.
No assessments of what U.S. students know about technology have been made since the 1989 PATT study. Given the lack of technology studies in U.S. schools, however, it is reasonable to assume that students know less about the nature and history of technology than they do about other, standard subjects, such as mathematics and science. The poor performance of U.S. middle school and high school students on the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) and the recently completed TIMSS follow-up (TIMSS-R) (Gonzales et al., 2000) suggest student technological knowledge would be even lower.
Given the lack of technology studies in U.S. schools, it is reasonable to assume that students know less about the nature and history of technology than they do about other, standard subjects, such as mathematics and science.
Technological Literacy of U.S. Adults
Only a handful of attempts have been made to measure knowledge and attitudes about technology in the American adult population— except in the area of computers, where scores of surveys have been done in the past decade (e.g., NPR, 1999.) Recently, the International Technology Education Association (ITEA, in press) commissioned the Gallup Organization to conduct the first-ever public poll in the United States on technological literacy. The poll tested conceptual and practical understanding of technology, as well as opinions about the importance of studying technology. ITEA hopes to repeat the survey periodically and use the results as a rough indicator of how—or whether—the level of technological literacy changes over time.
The results of the poll revealed that most Americans have a very limited view of technology. Asked to name the first thing that occurred to them when they thought of technology, the vast majority, nearly 68
percent, said computers. A distant second (almost 4 percent) was electronics. When respondents were given the choice of defining technology as “computers and the Internet” or more broadly as “changing the natural world to satisfy our needs,” nearly two-thirds chose the former. Americans also were confused about the relationship among science, engineering, and technology. About 60 percent agreed that engineering and technology and that science and technology “are basically the same thing.”
About three-quarters of Americans said they understood and were able to use technology to “some extent” or even to a “great extent,” but far fewer correctly answered questions testing their knowledge of how specific technologies actually worked (Table 3-2); the discrepancy suggests that our self-rated understanding is superficial. For instance, only half knew that using a cordless phone in the bathtub poses no risk of electrocution, and only a quarter knew that FM radios operate virtually free of static. A much higher proportion, 82 percent, however, knew that cars operate through a series of explosions in the engine, and 62 percent knew that microwave ovens do not work by heating foods from the outside to the inside.
According to the poll, Americans support the idea that people should understand and have some abilities related to technology, and they have a great interest in knowing how technologies work. They also believe strongly that citizens should have input into technology-related decisions that affect them, such as the location of new roads in their
TABLE 3-2 Responses to Questions about Specific Technologies
True or False Statement (correct answer)
% of Americans Responding Correctly
Using a portable phone while in the bathtub creates the possibility of being electrocuted (false)
FM radios operate free of static (true)
A car operates through a series of explosions (true)
A microwave heats food from the outside to the inside (false)
Source: ITEA (in press).
community or the development of genetically modified foods and fuel-efficient cars. Ninety-seven percent said they believed the study of technology, broadly defined, should be part of the school curriculum; twothirds said it should be integrated in other subjects rather than taught as a separate course.
As part of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, the National Science Board (NSB) has attempted to measure changes in public attitudes and understanding about science and technology. Jon Miller and his colleagues at the Chicago Academy of Sciences collected and assessed the data, which were first published in 1972. Miller’s group used information from telephone surveys to track interest and knowledge of, and attentiveness to, S&T issues. The surveys were administered only to adults. Recently, Miller moved to Northwestern University, and research related to the public understanding of science for the 2002 Indicators volume is being conducted by ORC Macro, which is using a survey design very similar to the one developed by Miller’s group. NSB plans to redesign the survey in 2003 (personal communication, M. Pollak, National Science Foundation, June 4, 2001).
The most recent Indicators shows that the public is very interested in but relatively poorly informed about science and technology (NSB, 2000). More than 40 percent of respondents rated themselves as very interested in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technology. Another 40 to 50 percent said they were moderately interested. By contrast, only 17 percent considered themselves very well informed; 30 percent considered themselves poorly informed.
The American public is no more informed about science and technology than the public in other countries.
Research by the Pew Center for the People and the Press paints a mixed picture, with people paying close attention to media reporting on certain high-profile science and technology issues but nearly ignoring others (Box 3-2). Cross-national comparisons show that the American public is slightly more interested and has slightly more positive feelings about science and technology but is no more informed about them than the public in other countries (Miller, 1997; Miller et al., 1997; OECD, 1997).
As might be expected, respondents who considered themselves more informed and more interested in science and technology also were better educated and had greater exposure to education in the sciences and mathematics. However, no attempt was made to determine whether the self-assessments were correct, for example whether those who rated themselves well informed actually were well informed. Another study that
BOX 3-2 Technology in the News
From 1986 to 2000, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press tracked high-profile news stories in the United States and surveyed members of the public to see how closely they were following those stories. The selection of stories was based on the judgment of center staff about what issues the media have been covering most intensively. Of the 735 high-profile stories identified by the center during that time, 54, or 7 percent, had some connection with technology.
The breakdown of those 54 stories is instructive. Sixteen of them, or nearly a third, were about accidents—plane and train crashes, oil spills, and the explosion on the U.S. aircraft carrier Iowa. Eleven related to the U.S. space program, including news about the space shuttle and space station, deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, and data glitches with the Mars Polar Lander (the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger was included in this group). There were eight biotechnology stories, including items about the cloning of animals and people, the mapping of the human genome, and the controversy surrounding breast implants. Seven stories dealt with some aspect of global climate change, mostly related to unseasonable weather patterns in the United States. Seven stories focused on computers, most of them about the antitrust battle waged by the U.S. government against Microsoft. Four stories concerned testing, arms reduction, or spying related to nuclear weapons technology, and one described structural damage following the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.
It is interesting to see how attentive members of the public were to the various high-profile stories. Eighty percent of those surveyed told the Pew Center researchers that they had followed the Challenger explosion “very closely,” but only 50 percent followed the flight of the space shuttle after the Challenger very closely. Fifty-two percent followed the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and 46 percent followed the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident very closely. Only 31 percent of those surveyed followed President Bush’s 1991 announcement of major nuclear arms reductions very closely, and 24 percent followed the 1990 deployment of Hubble very closely. Many important technology-related stories were followed only by a small share of the public: 18 percent for computer hacker attacks on Yahoo.com and other Internet sites; 17 percent for the cloning of the sheep Dolly; 16 percent for the mapping of the human genome; 9 percent for the debate over global warming; and 8 percent for NASA’s discovery of possible life on Mars in 1996.
Source: Adapted from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2001.
attempted to test this correlation using a survey method similar to Miller’s found that many people overestimate their level of knowledge about technology (Welty, 1992).
Many of the survey questions in the NSB Indicators report lump science and technology together, making it difficult to tease out public knowledge and attitudes specifically about technology. Of the questions that are specific, nearly all of them had to do with science, scientists, or the scientific method. The report looked carefully at the public understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry but did not focus on the public understanding of the design process, which is to engineering roughly what inquiry is to science.
The Miller group’s survey attempted to assess people’s knowledge of science and technology by testing their ability to judge the correctness
of various statements or to define terms. For example, more than 70 percent knew that the continents are moving slowly about the face of the Earth and that light travels faster than sound. But only 13 percent could define a molecule (up from 9 percent in 1995), and fewer than 45 percent knew that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves. Only 16 percent could define the Internet (up from 13 percent in 1997).
Miller also looked at changes over time in the public attitude toward several controversial technologies—nuclear power, genetic engineering, and space exploration. The assessments focused on perceptions of the balance of risks and benefits but did not test an actual understanding of the technology. For example, according to the 2000 Indicators report, 48 percent of Americans believed the benefits of nuclear power outweighed the risks, while 37 percent held the opposite view; 15 percent thought the benefits and risks were equal. Forty-four percent of those interviewed agreed that the benefits of genetic engineering either strongly or slightly outweighed the risks.
Taken together, data from the Gallup, NSB, and Pew surveys strongly suggest a mismatch between what Americans know about technology and their reliance on it. In terms of the three dimensions of technological literacy, most Americans exist in a relatively small “space” defined by a combination of limited knowledge, poorly developed ways of thinking and acting, and low capability regarding technology (Figure 3-1).
Taken together, data from the Gallup, NSB, and Pew surveys strongly suggest a mismatch between what Americans know about technology and their reliance on it.
Technological Literacy in Other Parts of the World
Several countries outside the United States have used various methods to determine the technological literacy of their school children. During the 1999–2000 school year, for example, researchers in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan gave children a five-hour test of their technological knowledge and abilities. Students answered multiple-choice and open-ended essay questions and took part in hands-on activities (Box 3-3). Technology is integrated into all subjects in the K-12 curriculum in Saskatchewan. One purpose of the assessment was to provide a baseline by which to gauge the success of this integration over time (personal communication, C. Atkinson, Saskatchewan Education, June 19, 2000).
Another group of Canadian researchers, with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education, developed a sophisticated assessment instrument called Views on Science, Technology, and Society (VOSTS)
(Crelinsten et al., 1992a). A version of VOSTS has been pilot tested on a cross section of tenth and twelfth grade students but has not been widely administered (Crelinsten et al., 1992b).
In the late 1980s, a research team operating under the auspices of the British School Examinations Assessment Council conducted a large-scale assessment of Britain’s design and technology curriculum (Kimbell et al., 1991). The focus of the project, which involved more than 15,000 15-year-olds, was on student performance in design and problem-solving activities rather than on their conceptual understanding of technology. The study concluded that girls generally do better than boys on more reflective design projects and on projects that are loosely defined and that boys do better on projects that require more action and are more tightly bounded.
The European Commission (EC) conducts periodic opinion polls of people in the 17 EC countries to gauge their attitudes, knowledge, and perceptions of risk concerning issues of specific interest to the member governments. Polls that focused on technological topics, mostly biotechnology and genetic engineering, have been published as special reports (e.g., International Research Associates, 2000). A few others were focused on information technology/data privacy and radioactive waste (e.g., International Research Associates, 1997).
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
BOX 3-3 Testing Conceptions of Technology
What is technology? A telephone? An airplane? What about a cup, a stone axe, a bed? Is a book technology? Is a pair of jeans? A piece of cheese? A flower?
Why do homes use insulation? Why were refrigerators developed? Do all technologies need electricity to operate? Is inventing ways of doing things technology? What is the purpose of having a password when using a computer? What is the most important technology ever made? How did people influence its development? How proficient are you at word processing? How well can you surf the Net? Can you program a clock radio’s alarm? Design plans for a new schoolyard? Build a lever from Lego blocks?
If you were a Saskatchewan fifth grader in 1999, you may have had to answer these questions and perform these tasks as part of a wide-ranging assessment of technological literacy. About 1,400 fifth graders and an equal number of 8th and 11th graders in some 187 schools participated in the assessment. Among other things, the results reveal that students have a fairly narrow conception of what technology is. For instance, just 7 percent of 5th and 8th graders, and 18 percent of 11th graders, felt a cup was technology. Similarly small percentages of students identified clothing and musical instruments as technology. Only 31 percent of 11th graders felt an old stone ax was technology. Sixty-two percent of 11th graders and only 23 and 31 percent of 5th and 8th graders, respectively, classed bridges as technology. Fewer than 40 percent of 5th and 8th graders identified a gun as technology, and only two-thirds of 11th graders did so. On the other hand, large majorities in all grades identified electronic technologies (e.g., telephone, computer, microwave oven) as technology.
Source: Saskatchewan Education, 2001.
(OECD) recently initiated the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures literacy in reading, mathematics, and science among 15-year-olds in the 29 OECD countries (OECD, 2001). Although the assessment did not explicitly address technological issues, PISA plans to develop an assessment area related to problem solving, which may include technology-related questions (personal communication, S.A. Raizen, National Center for Improving Science Education, May 10, 2001).
The United States finds itself in a paradoxical situation. At this moment, we are the strongest nation in the world economically and militarily, and our strength in both areas depends greatly on technology. In day-to-day affairs, too, we rely—whether we realize it or not—on a vast array of technologies. Under these circumstances, the public and policy makers should place a high value on a basic understanding of technology, including an understanding of how it is created. All Americans should be
aware of how technology has shaped our world and should be equipped to make informed choices on issues involving technology.
In reality, the situation is very different. For one thing, as technology has become more sophisticated, more prevalent, and in many cases more “invisible,” our human connection to it has changed. In a fundamental way, technology has become unfamiliar to us, not in the sense that we are unable to use it—in fact, Americans are adept consumers and users of technology—but unfamiliar in the deeper sense of not understanding how or why technology is created or what makes it work. Therefore, most Americans have little feel for the limits and potential of technology. This distancing has caused a number of misconceptions to spring up, for example about the relationship among science, engineering, and technology. And it has narrowed our idea of what technology is.
In a fundamental way, technology has become unfamiliar to us.
The institutions—schools, primarily—with the capability to address this lack of knowledge and these misconceptions have not been called on to do so. Technological studies, whether dedicated technology education courses or integrated as part of other subjects, have been relegated to the back burner of the K-12 agenda. Some important initiatives that could be vital building blocks in addressing this shortcoming have been undertaken (see Chapter 5), but the current situation is discouraging.
Ironically, the one area of technology—computers and the Internet—that has received the attention of both the public and policy makers seems to have further diminished the prospects for technological literacy. The focus on computers has distracted everyone—from students and classroom teachers to business leaders and legislators—from the growing, unmet larger need for an understanding of the nature, history, and role of technology. On Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the country, the issue of technological literacy is rarely discussed. This policy-making blind spot is indeed troubling given the thicket of technological issues lawmakers must negotiate on a daily basis.
The results of the ITEA-commissioned Gallup poll have revealed a deeply rooted problem. Most Americans have a very narrow view of technology. And although many appear to be confident in their ability to manage the complexities of the technological world, they also lack an understanding of how certain common technologies operate. The poll represents only a snapshot of public opinion, of course. Very few data are available about what U.S. students or the public at large actually knows about technology. This lack of information makes it difficult to design
and evaluate approaches for boosting technological literacy, either in the school setting or outside of the formal educational system.
Overall, the current context for technological literacy creates more obstacles than opportunities. For reasons that are at once historical, institutional, and reflective of the nature of modern technology, Americans appear to be unprepared to engage effectively and responsibly with technological change. To put it bluntly, we are a nation that does not value technological literacy and, therefore, has not achieved it.
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