Neal Lane

Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION

ASTC Annual Conference

St. Louis, Missouri

October 18, 1997


Science and Technology: A Center Stage for Learning


(As delivered)

I just welcomed the attendees of the 44th Annual Systematics Symposium, where I talked about my own "discoveries" of science through fossils -- as a kid in Oklahoma. I urged all the systematic biologists to use their passion for discovery to reach out to the public.

I am honored by the opportunity to address such an influential audience as ASTC gathers from the nation and around the world for this conference each year. I believe the work that you do is vital to America's economic and cultural future, as well as, to its national heritage. And, many of you from outside the U.S. may feel the same about your country. I have come here today to encourage you to expand that role and to examine it in all of its diverse aspects.

Let me begin by putting all our work, and perhaps even our egos, in somewhat humorous perspective. The wisdom and derision of one of science's great thinkers, Alfred North Whitehead, speaks directly to us. In his work, The Aims of Education, Whitehead said, "Knowledge does not keep any better than fish." I may not have phrased it quite that way, but he did have a point to make. Surely that truth renders our collective task all the more difficult.

In my remarks today, as I talk about education, knowledge and perhaps even fish, I will take credit for assembling these thoughts to make some selected points but I have relied heavily on the thinking of several prominent scholars whose wisdom and foresight are far greater than mine.

I have titled my remarks, Science and Technology: A Center Stage For Learning. I suppose there are several ways to interpret that title. One, undoubtedly, is that we have entered a stage of learning in which centers and museums will play an increasing role for educating the society about science and technology. Another would be that learning about science and technology will occupy center stage in our educational future. Both of these are, I believe, correct. I suspect you will come up with other interpretations of your own.

About ten years ago, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, Harvard educator and author of The Good High School, was interviewed by Bill Moyers. She said what all of you in this room know to be absolute, but nevertheless it is instructive and worthwhile to repeat.

She reminded us, "Schooling is what happens inside the walls of the school, some of which is educational. Education happens everywhere and it happens from the moment a child is born--and some people say before--until a person dies. It's a far more complicated, overarching process than can ever be handled inside the walls of a school. Good teachers know the various ways in which children are educated outside of the school and what their particular responsibilities are inside the school."

Professor Lightfoot distinguishes education as a pervasive, all encompassing life experience, and school as one significant arena where education occurs. She also reminds us, I believe, that the greatest value and benefit comes from the combination of occurrences both inside and outside of school, each enhancing the other. Science and technology centers and museums are critical motivators and reinforcers for that life experience we call education.

Just in case there is any challenge to Dr. Lightfoot's assertion that what happens outside of school is educationally vital (not very likely in this audience), I want to read to you a short passage from Carl Sagan's last work called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

He wrote, "...in 1939, my parents took me to the New York World's Fair. 'See sound,' one exhibit bewilderingly commanded. And sure enough, when the tuning fork was struck by the little hammer, a beautiful sine wave marched across the oscilloscope screen. 'Hear light,' another poster exhorted. And sure enough, when the flashlight shone on the photocell, I could hear something like the static on our Motorola radio set when the dial was between stations.. Plainly the world held wonders of a kind I had never guessed. How could a tone become a picture and light become a noise?"

Sagan gives us tantalizing insight into his own early scientific curiosity stimulated by these exhibits. Here we see the power of informal interventions to spark a waiting and receptive imagination. We should be grateful for the dedication of his parents to expose him to many sources of knowledge and stimulation.

I believe what all of us here are striving for is not only the growing excellence that centers and museums offer and the continued expansion of such venues, but the simultaneous improvement of all aspects of in-school learning of science and mathematics.

The great good fortune for America, and for the universe of knowledge was that Carl Sagan's thirst to know and understand was insatiable. His ultimate gift to all of us was the ability to convey his personal fascination, reverence, and understanding of science to everybody, scientist and non-scientist alike. In fact, his belief in the need to educate the public about science was far ahead of its time.

It may be that Sagan's inspirational experience with science at the informal setting of the New York World's Fair had something to do with his adult commitment to make science accessible to everyone.

What we do know about informal education of any kind is that it provides an opportunity to attract and teach not just the interested and engaged among us but also, very importantly, it is often able to capture and inspire the disinterested and disengaged. Thus, informal science education has a subtle but significant role to impress upon students and parents the value of science and math both to the individual and to society. As science and technology centers and museums become increasingly skilled at proliferating that message, learning science and math in the more formal setting of the classroom will become ever more meaningful to generations of students.

Science and technology centers, museums, and schools should be able to create a universe of learning that is seamless between the inside and the outside of school walls. To achieve this, we need to promote diverse collaborations in communities among schools, colleges, educators, parents, and the multiplicity of centers and museums.

We know that one of the most important aspects of improving science education is the professional development of teachers. At NSF we have, what I think I can describe as, a diverse and successful teacher enhancement program. Among other things, we encourage each project to be developed through collaboration and funding with organizations outside a school system. I think there is strong potential for creative arrangements with science and technology centers and museums, in situ and in cyberspace, to play a larger role in teacher enhancement activities.

Of the task to improve science and math education at every level in our schools, let me say the obvious. The path to any nation's scientific and technological capability is an early (pre-K), strong, and continuous math and science education for each and every student. The earlier it begins and the longer it lasts, the better for the individual and the nation.

A subtle but powerful role of informal education is its ability to pull-in the disinterested and the disengaged student and citizen. In the case of students that presupposes that they show up at the doorstep of a science and technology center or museum. But we know that for most young people the likelihood of this happening is remote unless it is part of a school arrangement. And the modus operandi in many school systems is that the interested and achieving students are more frequently offered the opportunities of visits to science and technology centers and museums.

Although many centers and museums currently reach out to bring students to their institutions, perhaps the reverse is also useful to consider -- to bring the center or museum to the student.

At first thought one might wonder at the value of such an activity when physically coming to the center seems to offer greater exposure and flexibility. However, there is a subtle issue here to consider. The in-school experience for many turned-off learners represents the ultimate stultifying venue. I do not mean to suggest that the teachers of turned-off students are not capable, talented, well-meaning, and hard-working. On the contrary, they are often all of the above.

But if we could change a student's attitude about that school-venue we could perhaps make school a different kind of place for that student. Staff from a museum or center coming into a classroom armed with a unique project or projects can make that "dreaded" classroom come to life for a student determined not to care. Sometimes it takes an outside influence in a school to make the place feel different for those who are disengaged. And, seeing things in a new light can be the catalyst for a whole new attitude.

My point is that informal science institutions have unique skills that can help address some of our more intractable in-school problems. As a nation we must find ways to reach the disinterested students if we are to succeed across the board in science and math for a competent workforce. It seems to me that the role of informal science institutions can only grow larger as we try to meet this goal.

Vartan Gregorian, past Director of the New York Public Library and past president of Brown University, current president of the Carnegie Foundation of New York, and a very perceptive educator helps us to see this task from another perspective. He says, "Education means drawing out of you what is already in there, not merely instilling something." (Actually, Plato may have said it first.) Our job as educators for the society is to reach out in unconventional as well as traditional ways to tap the hidden gifts in others. These gifts may be hidden behind blue spiked hair, or a painful diffidence, or a maverick demeanor, or a blasé slouch, but it is our task to recognize them and then nurture them.

As if these tasks were not enough, I believe there is also an "overarching" role that informal science venues can and do play. It is perhaps best described with a recent statement by Congressman Vern Ehlers of Michigan, who is on the Committee on Science in the House of Representatives. Ehlers, who is the only Ph.D. physicist in the Congress -- I'm sure a sometimes lonely situation -- said, "I believe that too often we present science as a static body of knowledge; science is fundamentally a mode of inquiry for exploring the universe."

Ehlers' depiction takes us back to the very origins of science in ancient Greek philosophy. Those origins were described recently in, of all things, a book entitled "Pooh (as in Winnie-the-Pooh) and the Philosophers" by John Tyerman Williams, university professor, actor, and writer. We should all keep a copy at our bedside. The work is an artful and fanciful attempt to put Pooh Bear right up there with Aristotle, Plato, and the more modern philosophers like John Stuart Mill.

Despite his overriding playfulness, Williams reminds us of this important history. He writes, "...the separation of science from philosophy is comparatively recent. Well into modern times what we now call "science" was named "natural philosophy." The very earliest Greek philosophers were cosmologists, that is enquirers about the nature of the universe. How did it begin? What was it made of? What were the stars and planets? How far off were they? What shape was the earth?"

It is, I believe, in the informal science setting that we can routinely pose the questions that do not necessarily have answers but that lead us instead to think in new directions for our society and civilization. This "overarching" questioning can be lost if we think of science as always providing answers, or that yesterday's answer will still be correct tomorrow.

In fact the Romanian-born French writer Eugene Ionesco crystallized this when he suggested that "It is not the answer that enlightens but the question."

And the physicist and noted historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller brought the question directly home to science when she challenged us with "We have developed scientific methods and techniques to change the world without asking what we would change the world to. We've never acknowledged we were making choices that could change the world."

These overarching questions about humanity's future and the future of the planet expand our awareness and alter our perspective. We cannot answer these questions precisely but we can ask them in the spirit of universal awareness and concern. We know that there will always be some predictables, some ponderables, and many imponderables.

It doesn't take a clairvoyant to know that the future will be increasingly technological. Surely that is among the predictables. But along with that technological compulsion that seems to define this era come unanticipated complexities that arise from the interactions of diverse technological paths and human adaptation. Informal education can play a unique role in bringing these recognitions to the public.

In the category of the ponderables, there is undoubtedly the question of what will be the nature of work in the future? Science, engineering and technology have everything to do with this question because they have been the major forces redesigning and redefining our society. As we move increasingly into the realm of learning and information technologies, life and work as we have known it in the age of the automobile and the highway system will give way to something different.

One can only speculate. The options in personal computer-home-based work and education, however, may bring our society full circle back to our homes and communities as the locus of our lives. It was in fact the automobile and the highway system that allowed us to daily leave home and community for ever further places. Whatever the change, it will not be less technological.

Of the imponderables, how we balance the sustenance of a burgeoning global population with the preservation of our planetary habitat has to be one of the primary dilemmas for the long-term. There are myriad possibilities. Each can lead us on a different path for the future.

As a society and a civilization, we cannot avoid these issues and questions. It seems to me that part of the role and responsibility of science and technology centers and museums is to pose these issues in an environment that encourages every citizen to participate in their reflection and discussion.

I think by now you must have grasped the respect that I have for your work and the confidence I have in the future role that you will play in educating the nation about science and technology.

I seem, however, to have backed myself into the end of this speech without any further mention of "fish" that I said would come. You know, the fish that Whitehead likened to keeping no better than knowledge. I am sure you will believe me if I tell you that there are not many visionary thoughts that connect to fish but.... there happens to be an anonymous Latin saying that translates to "You're teaching a fish to swim." Perhaps that is true of all that I have said today because you already know your strengths and your value and how to do a superb job. So, my advice is to put one fin in front of the other and just keep swimming! Thank you.

 

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