BOSTON — Science is part of our daily lives — the way we understand the
natural world, the technologies we use and the decisions we make about our
health and the environment. So why, asks Cornell University researcher Bruce
Lewenstein, do most people know so little about science?

Lewenstein, who is an associate professor of science communication at
Cornell, is among the growing number of educators exploring the gap between
practitioners of science and the public at large. Aided by federal and
university funding initiatives, they are working to promote general
"scientific literacy" through community involvement and education efforts,
known as outreach. But, they ask, are their efforts working?

The question will be addressed by researchers and educators at 9 a.m. today
(Feb. 17) at a symposium, "Best Practices From Research Scientists Who
Communicate With The Public," at the American Association for the
Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. The panel is organized by
Lewenstein and by Ilan Chabay of the New Curiosity Shop, consultants in the
design of science learning experiences and programs.

In recent years, increasing emphasis on outreach and education by major
scientific funding agencies — including the National Science Foundation
(NSF) and the National Institutes of Health — has sparked renewed interest
among scientists in developing ways to work outreach into their research
programs. For example, the NSF, which distributes more than $4 billion in
research funding annually, in 1997 stopped evaluating grant proposals
primarily on the intellectual merit of the proposed research. Now the
standard includes broader social impacts of the research under consideration
and strengthens the role of education and the participation of
underrepresented groups. Even so, says Lewenstein, public education still
has a long way to go. "Senior
people at scientific institutions and societies all recognize the importance
of outreach. Meanwhile, younger researchers are often socialized to not
engage in outreach but to stay in the lab," he says. "There are lots of
scientists who engage in outreach, but compared to the number who could,
it’s pretty small."

Lewenstein edits a quarterly academic journal, Public Understanding of
Science, and directs the New York Science Education Program, a consortium of
colleges committed to improving undergraduate science education.

Also speaking on the AAAS panel will be Nevjinder Singhota, educational
programs director at the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR), one
of 29 such NSF-funded centers that promotes
interdisciplinary research and education.

Singhota coordinates a diverse outreach program, one of several at Cornell
that brings science faculty, graduate students and undergraduates into area
K-12 classrooms. CCMR also runs workshops
for teachers, home-schooled children and teenagers in juvenile detention
facilities. A crucial factor in the success of CCMR outreach, according to
Singhota, is making education part of the administrative vision. She notes
that the director of CCMR, Frank DiSalvo, the John A. Newman Professor of
Physical Sciences at Cornell, and the associate director, Helene Schember,
encourage faculty to do outreach. "They themselves do it, they develop the
lessons, and so it evolved from that. It’s just part of the whole process,"
she says.

During the past two years, CCMR has offered more than 40 programs reaching
more than 70 undergraduates, 2,000 K-12 students, 100 teachers, 125 parents
and 20,000 upstate New York newspaper readers through an ask-the-scientist
column. Participants have included more than 100 faculty members, 80
graduate and post doctoral students, 16 professional staff members and
numerous undergraduates.

DiSalvo sees science education as essential to a democratic society in which
the public makes decisions related to science and technology. "A
scientifically illiterate public is a recipe for disaster," he says. "As a
democracy it’s in our best interest to become scientifically literate, and
that’s really what outreach is about — to introduce people to the methods
of science and the fun of science."

Related World Wide Web sites:

The following sites provide additional information on this news release.
Some might not be part of the Cornell University community, and Cornell has
no control over their content or availability.


* Public Understanding of Science

* International Network on Public Communication of Science and