Sticker shock: The importance of science in education
Last fall, in an environmental biology course at Washington University, my teacher discussed the international debate over the validity of climate change and other hot-button scientific topics, including evolution. We watched clips from Fox News, and the class giggled over the absurdity of it all—real people, in 2017, still insisting that climate change isn’t real, scraping the bottom of the barrel for evidence, launching personal attacks against specific scientists and agencies. The room, of course, was primarily filled with biology and environmental science students.
To continue the lecture, my professor brought up an especially egregious example of a science-denier in action. I vaguely heard him mention some county in some town that tried to put a sticker on biology textbooks to make clear that “evolution is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of living things.” When I looked up at the screen, I was horrified to find that my own school district was the one in question. Cobb County Schools, the purveyor of my academic career from 4th grade through high school graduation, was the defendant.
In the enclosed community at Washington University, it’s easy to forget that people outside our bubble share views contrary to the general population of students. My hometown of Kennesaw, Ga. is constantly mocked by my friends here (and with good reason) for its conservative Southern tendencies. After that one class period, I messaged my friends from back home—most of whom are currently enrolled at 4-year colleges, some majoring in STEM fields—and none of us can remember learning about evolution in school.
Our county allows for exceptions to normal curricula for “religious objections held by many of its residents.” Specifically, as of 1995, the policy read “no student is compelled to study the origin of human species in science” and “there may be no course requirement for the origin of the human species in science for high school graduation.” A concept so elementary to the general field of science, something so widely accepted amongst my friends, professors and mentors, was never once mentioned to me in an academic setting before college.
For students that don’t have involved parents or guardians or a self-motivated interest in science, school may serve as their only access point. The linear transfer of information allows no room for questioning or discussion unless prompted, and resources are hand-selected by teachers to reflect a certain stance.
In the ever-changing world of politics, questions regarding the dissemination of scientific lessons in schools are often debated. Scott Pruitt, current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, cited the need for “honest cost-benefit work” when generating data to prove or disprove the existence of climate change and the factors that cause it—or if it even exists. This, in his view, means a greater influence of fossil fuel companies. EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman claimed “the difference between us and the previous administration is that we feel that the regulated community is an important stakeholder.” In other words, “we believe those that stand to profit from the continued production and burning of fossil fuels should be able to say whether they’re harmful or not.”
Simultaneously, the administration recently directed the Education Department to invest $200 million in grants toward improving STEM education in schools, specifically computer science. While this all sounds well and good, initiatives without acceptance will never move past initial stages of implementation. Bipartisan agreement on science-related issues will help ensure more widespread acceptance of scientific issues, starting with education.
Raising a generation of well-informed, scientifically minded—or, at the very least, scientifically knowledgeable students—is the first step to a self-sustaining cycle of advancement. As students continue with their education, they can base their ideas in factually accurate information, choose a career and pass down credible information to the next generation.
While I was lucky enough to learn about issues like climate change and evolution through my parents and my peers, I worry for those not lucky enough to have alternative sources of information to those provided in schools. Pushing President Donald Trump’s administration to necessitate the spread of accurate, peer-reviewed information through the Education Department and the EPA, centered in the best interests of American people and the environment—not industry representatives—helps assure future generations will produce technologies to do the same.