Friday, April 1, 2011

Only 30% of Americans Understand Basic Science - What Should Marketers Do?

Scientific literacy in this country, and around the world, is a big issue discussed regularly by educators, government leaders and other important stakeholders.

Without it, most people cannot read the science sections of newspapers and understand them. Most are written at a 5th or 6th grade level. Research from Michigan State University shows less than 30% of Americans qualify as scientifically literate.

What does this have to do with marketing you ask? The job growth in the next few decades is going to be in science, engineering and health fields, and so will many of the products and services developed. Without basic science literacy it will be impossible to hire people for these positions and for them to market what they are selling effectively.

And if companies want to hire Americans, it is up to them to train the high school and college kids of today in the information that they need to know in order to get hired.

What does a scientific literate person need to know? According to the Nuffield Foundation he or she should be able to:

• Appreciate and understand the impact of science and technology on everyday life.

• Make informed personal decisions about things that involve science, such as health, diet, and energy.

• Read and understand the essential points of media reports on science.

• Reflect critically on the information included in such reports

• Discuss scientific issues with confidence and clarity.

Michigan State University professor Jon Miller said in an article published by AAAS’ EurekAlert that, "A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults.”

A recent study of scientific literacy in college students, which was published in January of 2011, shows just how deep the problem goes. Miller and other researchers recently examined the science knowledge of more than 500 students at 13 U.S. colleges in courses ranging from introductory biology to advanced ecology.

Most students could not answer these questions:

1. How does carbon transform? Most students failed to apply principles such as the conservation of matter, which holds that when something changes chemically or physically, the amount of matter at the end of the process needs to equal the amount at the beginning.

2. Why and how do we lose weight? Students trying to explain weight loss could not trace matter once it leaves the body; instead they used informal reasoning based on their personal experiences (such as the fat "melted away" or was "burned off").

3. How do plants grow? Most students incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

We've found in research done for AAAS on our Science Inside Alcohol project that the majority of middle school students didn't know that human body systems are interconnected. So when we set out to write a book for parents and a microsite for kids, we started by explaining each body system that they needed to understand in order to get the science of how alcohol affects our bodies.

Aside from needing jobs, college students are the ones who will over the next few decades be grappling with climate change issues, among others. How can they intelligently discuss and debate what is happening to our planet and people without a basic knowledge of science? The answer is they can’t.

In Chattanooga, TN under a grant from the National Science Foundation, a local high school formed a health academy that students attended from 10th grade on. They wore scrubs to school (how cool is that) and learned much of the basic science and technology they would need to take jobs in local medical companies (albeit they weren't high level jobs they were entry level employees but you have to start somewhere).

There are academies like this within many high schools, courtesy in part from the Gates Foundation. And there have been for quite some time. But Chattanooga did it differently.

High school teachers went to local health and science companies, and talked to them about future workforce needs. They learned about what it would take for students to get their jobs, and worked with the companies to create a curriculum that prepared them with the basic science and medical background they would need. The companies also agreed to hire the students as interns so they could learn while doing and get to know their inner workings.

So come on marketers, step up to the plate.