Based on direct and indirect evidence from a variety of sources, as well as committee members’ experiences and expert judgment, the committee concluded that it is in the interest of all Americans to understand more about technology. The conclusion is based on an exploration of technology’s role in society and our relationship to it; an analysis of how current social, political, and educational environments affect both the idea and the practical expression of technological literacy; an estimation of the benefits—to individuals and society at large—of greater technological literacy; and a sampling of initiatives that may provide a foundation for a more serious and sustained campaign for technological literacy. The logical question, then, is, what comes next? What steps should be taken, and by whom, to make a campaign for technological literacy a reality? The ultimate goal of the campaign must be to increase the number of people who are knowledgeable, thoughtful, and capable with respect to technology (Figure 5-1).
The Committee on Technological Literacy decided to focus its recommendations on four areas: (1) formal and informal education; (2) research; (3) decision making; and (4) educational innovation. While more categories are possible, the committee believes this set provides an appropriate, balanced, and feasible agenda for enhancing technological literacy in the United States. The categories are addressed roughly in order of priority. Readers should note, however, that the recommendations overlap and support each other, so no category can be ignored. For instance, the availability of better data about technological literacy and how people learn about technology will inform efforts in the education sector. Initiatives to improve technological decision making, which would
increase public awareness of the value of informed debate about technology, should also increase support for research and educational reforms.
Strengthening the Presence of Technology in Formal and Informal Education
The U.S. education system has many components that are closely interrelated. Creating lasting change in this complex system requires a strategy that targets several components simultaneously over a sustained period of time. Four key points in the system are curricula, instructional materials, student testing, and standards. Currently, few curricula or instructional materials at the K-12 or undergraduate level integrate nontechnology subjects with technology-related content. Short of the widespread adoption of dedicated courses in technology—an unlikely scenario, in the committee’s view—the inclusion of technology subject matter in other academic areas is one of the surest ways of increasing the visibility of technology in U.S. schools. To date, the most attention has been paid to integrating technology with science and mathematics. The committee urges that these initiatives be continued, and, in addition, attempts should be made to include technology content in other subjects, such as social studies, civics, history, geography, art, language arts, and even literature.
There are virtually no tests at the state, national, or international
level designed to measure what K-12 students and undergraduates know about technology. As curricula and instructional materials that incorporate technology content are developed, questions about technology are likely to be integrated into student assessments. In addition, targeted efforts to redesign these tests to include technology-related items could significantly accelerate the integration of technological content into curricula.
Although national standards in a variety of subject areas, such as science, mathematics, history, and language arts, stress connections to technology, for the most part these standards are not reflected in the curricula, instructional materials, and assessments for those subjects. State curriculum frameworks for most school subjects do not make connections to technology content.
Recommendation 1 Federal and state agencies that help set education policy should encourage the integration of technology content into K-12 standards, curricula, instructional materials, and student assessments in nontechnology subject areas.
At the federal level, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education (DoEd) can do this in a number of ways, including, when appropriate, making integration a requirement for providing funding for the development of curriculum and instructional materials. The technically oriented federal agencies (e.g., National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, and Energy, National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration) can support integration by developing background materials for teachers of science, history, social studies, civics, the arts, and language arts keyed to national standards and benchmarks in those subjects.
At the state level, science and technology advisors and advisory councils can use their influence with governors, state legislatures, and industry to encourage the inclusion of technology content in nontechnology subjects, not only in the general K-12 curriculum but also in school-to-work and technician-preparation programs. State boards of education can provide incentives for publishers to modify next-generation science, history, social studies, civics, and
language arts textbooks to include technology content, for example by incorporating technological themes into state educational standards or by modifying the criteria for school textbooks to include a requirement that the texts contain substantial technology content. Science and history tests that are part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and future iterations of the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey could be modified to include technology-related items.
Science and technology are so closely connected in the modern world that it is hard to think about them as separate entities. This interconnectedness may explain the confusion in the minds of students, teachers, and the public at large about how science and technology are related. Both have played fundamental roles in our history and culture. In the vast majority of U.S. classrooms, however, technology is not treated as a partner to science or recognized as a major influence on society. Some science classes touch on design, problem solving, and other facets of technological thinking, but teachers and instructional materials rarely explore these concepts. Even fewer nonscience curricula and instructional materials touch on technology.
Recommendation 2 The states should better align their K-12 standards, curriculum frameworks, and student assessment in the sciences, mathematics, history, social studies, civics, the arts, and language arts with national educational standards that stress the connections between these subjects and technology. NSF- and DoEd-funded instructional materials and informal-education initiatives should also stress these connections.
State boards of education in the United States should explicitly link K-12 content in the sciences, mathematics, history, social studies, civics, the arts, and language arts with technology content in their standards, curriculum frameworks, and student assessments in ways suggested by the appropriate national standards. (For example, in science, boards of education might refer to Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the National Science Education Standards, and the Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology. In mathematics, boards could refer to Principles and Standards for School Mathematics.) State science and technology advisors and advisory councils should use their
influence with governors, state legislatures, industry, and community colleges to support and facilitate this process.
All new instructional materials developed with funding from NSF, DoEd, or other federal agencies should have a much more sophisticated and expanded presentation of technological concepts and themes, and these should be closely articulated with the materials’ core content in the sciences or other subjects.
In a parallel action, federally funded projects in informal education, particularly those supported by the NSF, should be required to make explicit the relationship between technology and the main academic subject focus of the initiative, as spelled out in the appropriate national standards.
A better understanding of the distinctions between science and technology as well as their interdependencies would enable teachers to focus their efforts on technological design issues in the classroom, which could lead to more discussion of attitudes and assumptions about technology. Teachers and students could then focus on related questions about the risks and benefits of introducing new technologies, ethical issues, issues of evidence, and so on.
Recommendation 3 NSF, DoEd, state boards of education, and others involved in K-12 science education should introduce, where appropriate, the word “technology” into the titles and contents of science standards, curricula, and instructional materials.
This seemingly trivial change in language could have a profound effect on students’ and the public’s awareness of technology. This recommendation is not a recommendation for new courses. The change would be appropriate in many cases where the word “science” appears in isolation. The addition of the word “technology” would provide a more accurate description of the content of some curricula and would put technology issues on an equal footing, at least linguistically, with science issues.
Another crucial component in the U.S. educational system is teacher education. Indeed, the success of changes in curricula, instructional materials, and assessments will depend largely on the ability of teachers to implement those changes. Lasting improvements will require
both the creation of new teaching and assessment tools as well as the appropriate preparation of teachers to use those tools effectively.
Recommendation 4 NSF, DoEd, and teacher education accrediting bodies should provide incentives for institutions of higher education to transform the preparation of all teachers to better equip them to teach about technology throughout the curriculum.
In general, teachers of technology must approach the subject from an engineering perspective rather than an industrial arts perspective. These teachers must be fully conversant with the International Technology Education Association’s Standards for Technological Literacy and familiar with the materials and techniques for teaching to those standards. Technology teachers with a good understanding of science and the interactions between technology, science, and society will be well prepared to work with other teachers to integrate technology with other subjects.
Teachers of science should have a solid education in technology and engineering design to ensure that they are prepared to use new materials that will become available that include technology-related examples and activities. Teachers of history and social studies should be required to become knowledgeable about how science and technology influence history and society.
Elementary school teachers should, at the very least, be scientifically and technologically literate. Universities can provide appropriate courses or make provisions for teachers to meet this requirement by examination. The content of the American Assocation for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science for All Americans could be used as a minimum standard; the publications listed in AAAS’s Resources for Science Literacy (Appendix A) can provide some of the necessary information.
Teachers at all levels should be able to conduct design projects and use design-oriented teaching strategies to encourage learning.
Developing a Research Base
Efforts to improve technological literacy in the United States have been hampered by a weak research base. The lack of reliable,
longitudinal information about what people know and believe about technology, for example, has made it difficult for curriculum developers to design strategies for addressing gaps in what students know, correcting misconceptions, and building on existing understandings. Further, because we have not been able to measure changes in public understanding, policy makers have been hard pressed to know how to enhance technological literacy.
Very little research has been done on the cognitive steps involved in constructing new knowledge about technology. This information would benefit developers of instructional materials and curricula, as well as teachers trying to plan classroom strategies and designers of initiatives in informal education. Developing a research base for technological literacy will require creating cadres of competent researchers, developing and periodically revising a research agenda, allocating funding for research projects, and incorporating research findings in teaching materials and techniques.
Recommendation 5 NSF should support the development of assessment tools that can be used to monitor the state of technological literacy among students and the public in the United States.
NSF, which has already invested considerable effort in determining the public understanding of, and attitudes toward, science and technology, should take the lead in supporting assessment research. A first step would be to evaluate methods currently used to measure knowledge and understanding in other subject areas to determine if they could be used to gauge technological literacy. Researchers would have to take into account the special challenges associated with assessing technological understanding, including the different meanings people attribute to the word “technology” and the real, sometimes confusing connections between science and technology. Researchers should also consider how much an assessment of technological literacy should rely on knowledge and capabilities spelled out in formal content standards (e.g., the standards created by the International Technology Education Association, National Research Council, and American Association for the Advancement of Science).
Recommendation 6 NSF and DoEd should fund research on how people learn about technology, and the results should be applied in formal and informal education settings.
This research would focus on the relationship between scientific knowledge and technological knowledge; the roles of procedural and conceptual knowledge in enhancing technological understanding; the nature and process of technological problem solving; and the application of findings in cognitive science to technological learning. The work being done by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to develop a research agenda for technology education should be continued and expanded.
The results of this research must be translated into practical strategies for enhancing learning and teaching in the classroom and in informal settings, such as museums, science and technology centers, and through materials in print, online, and in the broadcast media.
Enhancing Informed Decision Making
In a modern nation like the United States, a substantial number of decisions have a technological component. Outside the formal school setting, one of the best ways to become educated about technology is to engage in discussions of the pros and cons, risks and benefits, knowns and unknowns of a particular technology or technological choice. Engagement in decision making is likely to have a direct, positive effect on the nonexpert participants, and involving the nonexpert public in deliberations about technological developments as they are taking shape, rather than after the fact, may actually shorten the time and reduce the resources required to bring new technologies into service. Equally important, public participation may also result in design changes that better reflect the needs and desires of society.
Recommendation 7 Industry, federal agencies responsible for carrying out infrastructure projects, and science and technology museums should provide more opportunities for the nontechnical public to become involved in discussions about technological developments.
The technical community—especially engineers and scientists in industry—is largely responsible for the amount and quality of communication and outreach to the public on technological issues. Industry should err on the side of encouraging greater public engagement, even if it may not always be clear what types of technological development merit public input. In the federal arena, some agencies already require recipients of funding to engage communities likely to be affected by planned infrastructure projects. These efforts should be expanded. In general, efforts to enhance public involvement in technological decision making in the United States could benefit from the experiences of other nations, particularly Denmark and Holland.
The informal education sector, especially museums and science and technology centers, is well positioned to prepare the nontechnical public to grapple with the complexities of decision making in the technological realm. These institutions and the government agencies, companies, and foundations that support them could do much more to encourage public discussion and debate about the direction and nature of technological development at both the local and national level.
Informed decision making is important for all citizens of a democracy and is vital for leaders in government and industry whose decisions influence the health and welfare of the nation. State and federal legislators, who set policy and allocate resources, largely determine the national agenda in education, national security, health care, and many other areas. Industry shapes the consumer culture and drives economic growth and productivity through investments in research, product development, and marketing.
Government and industry both face a daunting array of issues with substantial technological components, from the creation and regulation of genetically modified organisms to the future of the Internet and e-commerce. The committee believes there is a great unmet need in both sectors for information and education that would contribute to more informed decision making about technological matters.
Recommendation 8 Federal and state government agencies with a role in guiding or supporting the nation’s scientific and technological enterprise, and private foundations concerned about good governance, should
support executive education programs intended to increase the technological literacy of government and industry leaders.
Executive education programs could include courses, lasting from several days to several weeks, designed for leaders and decision makers (and key staff) in Congress, state and local governments, and industry. The courses might use case studies to deal with current and anticipated technological problems and choices. These courses could be offered in many locations throughout the country, at major research universities, community colleges, law schools, business schools, schools of management, colleges of engineering, and other institutions. The courses would be taught by experts in technology, science, history of science and technology, and technological literacy.
The engineering community, which is directly involved in the creation of technology, is uniquely equipped to promote technological literacy. An engineering-led effort to increase technological literacy could have significant, long-term pay-offs, not only for decision makers in government but also for the public at large.
Recommendation 9 U.S. engineering societies should underwrite the costs of establishing government- and media-fellow programs with the goal of creating a cadre of policy experts and journalists with a background in engineering.
These programs could be small to begin with, but should be expanded over time to include a larger number of fellows from the ranks of master’s, doctoral, and postdoctoral level engineers. Government fellowship programs could include workshops and internships in Congress and statehouses around the country. Because few national or state legislators are engineers, a technologically savvy staff could be very helpful. Graduates of the program might become permanent government employees or might return to engineering practice or education but would continue to serve as consultants to state and local legislators on technological issues.
The training for media fellows should include workshops, followed by internships at cooperating newspapers, magazines, or
television or radio stations. Graduates of the program might become professional journalists or might return to engineering, but would continue to serve as consultants to the media. Better media coverage of technological issues would help inform citizens, who would then be better equipped to make decisions in their own lives.
Rewarding Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation
One of the biggest obstacles to enhancing technological literacy in the United States is the limited amount of high-quality instructional materials and curricula available. Although some good materials and effective curricula and programs have been developed, the developers often do not have sufficient funding, time, or expertise to disseminate their work to a broad audience. Some teachers, education researchers, and curriculum developers have created interesting and effective approaches to engaging students in technology and design activities, but most of them are known only in the school or school system where they originated.
Recommendation 10 NSF, in collaboration with industry partners, should provide funding for awards for innovative, effective approaches to improving the technological literacy of students or the public at large.
A key criterion for the awards should be that the innovation be scalable (i.e., it can be replicated on a large scale). The awards would provide financial and logistical support for disseminating the innovation widely across the United States. The National Academy of Engineering’s Gordon Prize, which is awarded for innovations in engineering education, could be a model for developing an award program.
For almost 20 years, outstanding teachers in science and mathematics from around the United States have been recognized annually for their contributions to student learning through the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. Awardees receive a $7,500 educational grant for their schools, a presidential citation, and a trip to Washington, D.C., for a series of events honoring their achievements. The program not only increases the visibility of the work of high-caliber
teachers, it also draws public attention to and helps build support for excellence in science and math education. No similar award exists for technology education.
Recommendation 11 The White House should add a Presidential Award for Excellence in Technology Teaching to those that it currently offers for mathematics and science teaching.
The NSF, which administers the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for the White House, should consult with the International Technology Education Association (ITEA), which already has several long-standing award programs for technology teachers who are members of the organization. Those eligible for the new award could include not only teachers with degrees in technology education, but also teachers with backgrounds in science, math, and other subjects.
A Final Word
The purpose of this report is to inform the public—and especially people in a position to affect policy—of the urgent need for technological literacy. The report and its recommendations provide only a starting point. The case for technological literacy must be made consistently, on an ongoing basis, in light of the technological developments of the time. As Americans gradually become more sophisticated with regard to technological issues, they will be more willing to support measures in the schools and in the informal education arena to raise the level of technological literacy of the next generation. In time, leaders in government, academia, and business will also recognize the value of widespread technological literacy to their own and the nation’s welfare. The journey promises to be slow and challenging but unquestionably worth the effort.