WASHINGTON—For the past 10 years, Frank Niepold has been doing his part to educate the public on climate change – its causes and effects — as the climate coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What he has learned, he says, is that Americans need to increase their scientific literacy.
Pew Research Center statistics show that only 29 percent of Americans consider the country’s K-12 science, technology, engineering and math education to be the best in the world. According to Niepold, the STEM field has three pressing goals: increasing the number of professionals in the workforce, increasing diversity in the fields and improving civic science literacy.
“Only about 2 to 4 percent of people in the population actually go into the scientific field in one way or another,” said Niepold, who is also the education co-chair at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, 13 federal agencies that assess the U.S. climate every four years. “(Most) of the population is going to be just citizens. There’s a professional aspect to it, you need science literacy to be a scientist, a technologist, or an engineer. But then there’s a civic aspect to it.”
Science literacy is more than just knowing facts and being familiar with the scientific method, but also means understanding how science really works, said John Durant, adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the MIT museum, Monday at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
“The challenge is when somebody doesn’t understand the information and draws incorrect points that really aren’t substantiated by the science,” Niepold said. “Then they draw conclusions that are going to be challenging for their communities, themselves and so on.”
While museums and community events such as workshops provide a starting point, activities that allow non-scientists to engage with working scientists have proven to be more effective in promoting scientific literacy, said Larry Bell, senior vice president for Strategic Initiative at the Museum of Science in Boston.
Scientists are able to engage in conversations with the public as well as talk about their research at science cafes, scientific storytelling and science festivals. Niepold has worked with schools and advocacy groups to explain climate change.
“They don’t want to hear from professional educators, but they really want to hear from professional researchers,” said Durant. “The appetite for this is enormous. The more people have direct contact with people doing science the more likely they’ll be able to get a general feel for how science really works.”
Niepold said it is important for Americans to understand President Barack Obama’s 2013 Climate Action Plan. Some goals of the White House’s initiative include cutting U.S. carbon emissions, preparing the nation for the impacts of climate change and being a global leader in renewable energy and climate policy.
“Just having scientific information available by the scientific community is not sufficient to inform the nation on the choices that they have,” Niepold sad. “My job is to build more climate and energy literacy in the nation.”