Monday, April 23, 2007

Why Understanding Science Matters

Promoting quality science education, in both formal and informal settings, is essential to all members of society. However, African-Americans and people from lower socio-economic standings still fall woefully behind other groups in their ability to understand science and the role of science in society. Science plays a vital role in our ability to make decisions about our health, our families, our neighborhoods and even our voting decisions. Some ways to measure public engagement and comprehension of science and science discoveries include rate of participation in recycling programs, participation in public debates on topics related to legislation such as stem cell research, and participation in research studies.

Let’s examine the issue of environmental education and advocacy among this demographic as an example. African-Americans and those from lower SES groups participate in municipal recycling programs at much lower rates than other demographic groups. However, studies of environmental attitudes and behaviors of these groups (conducted before 1990) concluded that concern for environmental issues may be less an issue of race and more about educational background and socio-economic factors. Initially, I would agree with this. Most issues of class or welfare or political engagement come down to access to resources (this includes educational opportunities) and regrettably these problems seem to be magnified among poor communities and people of color. And it doesn’t escape me that it is often poor people, with few political and financial resources, who are typically the victims of large companies and greedy municipal leaders who commit environmental justice breeches.

Interestingly, encouraging reports from studies conducted since 1991, indicate that African-Americans, notably the middle-class, are as concerned about environmental issues as whites. However, the statistics seem to be in stark contrast to my personal observations and interactions with college educated middle class African-Americans. I have found it very difficult to engage my fellow African-American young professional friends on this topic. Attempts to initiate meaningful discussions about environmental education/advocacy, or global warming, or fossil fuel prices and consumptions are failures. Most admit to not recycling, not composting or even modifying their gas consumption when prices rise. They seem completely ignorant of how their actions relate to larger environmental and economic issues. Even proposals to complete environmentally-centered service projects are typically coolly received and followed by a comment that indicates that as black people we are excused from such considerations because it’s not important enough.

This ignorance and refusal to address larger environmental problems isn’t restricted to small social networks. African-American civic organizations, almost never address issues related to the environment, or any other issue that can be placed in a larger scientific context, such as quality science education resources or science research. More often than not, such organizations prefer to address issues that are deemed more socially and economically relevant to the "Black Community".

That’s the most distressing fact of all. When African-Americans excuse ourselves from participating in global matters, we alert other groups that we aren’t to be taken seriously. It sends the message that as a group we are not important. Our contribution is insignificant. Furthermore, remaining uniformed of recent events, specifically scientific discoveries, makes us vulnerable. We risk being left out, overlooked. Returning to the matter of environmental advocacy -- environmental issues are societal issues, something that affects everyone in some way. And history has taught us that anything that negatively affects everyone affects poor people (of color) worse. In fact, I find very distressing that minority advocacy groups don't take the time to weigh in on national or global issues unless these issues somehow specifically address the "Black Agenda". How can we/minority advocacy groups expect to be taken seriously in our effort to obtain parity if we're not willing to make contributions to some of our society's most widespread/serious issues? If we/minority advocacy groups are serious in our efforts to create a more pluralistic society, then we’ve got to educate ourselves on subjects beyond the typically-defined “Black experience”.

African-Americans are terribly under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The media outlets that specifically market African-Americans don’t help. My personal survey of popular Black media sources, including print and internet, reveal that there is virtually no science coverage. At best, these outlets will feature an occasional story on a “Black Scientist” or discuss the latest health information related to black people’s health. But as of now, there are no resources in the popular media that work toward informing this audience.

Promoting science and science education to the masses is essential to diversifying STEM career fields. We can’t possibly hope to have more Black Scientists and Engineers if the base population from which we will recruit is scientifically and mathematically illiterate!

Comprehending science is essential to all. But first people must understand what Science is. Science is a human endeavor to gain knowledge about the natural world.

Develop an appetite for science.

Become familiar with the vocabulary. Listen to NPR Science Friday Series. Subscribe to popular science magazines. Right now, the average subscriber to popular science magazines like Discover, American Scientist, and Popular Science is a white male, age 49 years old. This must change.
Participate in public forums. Attend Family and Community Science Events at your child’s school. Share science with your children. Let your children share science with you. Share science with those in your social circles.
Plan group outings to attend a science seminar at your local your local science center, zoo, or botanical garden. Encourage your local library to subscribe to popular science magazines. Host a group discussion on science and recent discoveries. Whatever you do, make science and education apart of your family’s and community’s life and conversation.

2 comments:

Villager said...

My first visit to your village. I like the flow and look forward to coming back often. Have you heard of BDPA before?

peace, Villager

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