To Lead the World Once More, STEM Literacy a Prerequisite
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson offers the closing address to VMI's STEM education conference. -- VMI Photo by John Robertson IV.
LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 3, 2012 – VMI’s STEM education conference ended with a bang, as Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, brought conference attendees and cadets to their feet in a passionate round of applause.
During the course of his talk, Tyson examined what happens when communities and nations care about aptitude in STEM fields and what happens when they don’t.
“The talk should be titled ‘Adventures in Science Illiteracy,’” said Tyson. “I’ll be bringing you examples of what I’ve seen in my walks through life that drive home why I think science literacy is not just important for STEM literacy in general.
“It’ not just important for the training of the mind, it’s important for all manner of subjects, including national security, including economic competitiveness, so it’s not just for personal intellectual enlightenment. It goes much deeper than that.”
Tyson noted recent infrastructure failures, including the levies in New Orleans breaking during Hurricane Katrina, the Interstate 35 bridge collapse, and steam pipes rupturing in New York City.
“Let’s wake up and smell what’s going on here,” said Tyson. “People die when this happens.”
In addition to looking at tangible issues like crumbling infrastructure, Tyson examined some of the products of irrationality in America, such as fear of the number 13 and the belief that the world will end later this year.
“Here’s a book: How To Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction. I bought this book. I read this book. I heeded its advice. That’s why I’m here to talk to you,” said Tyson. “Somebody got this put on shelves. What country is this, and what year is this?”
Tyson displayed currencies from other countries which feature those nations’ contributions to science as a way of demonstrating the national enthusiasm for science around the world.
“In Germany they have math on their currency,” said Tyson. “If you’re a kid looking at that, you wouldn’t understand it when you first saw it. You might be curious about it. It might trigger later an interest in what you end up studying.”
There was a time when that kind of national enthusiasm was present in America.
Tyson pointed out that when America had a strong space program, it wasn’t necessary to set up special initiatives, such as this very conference, to convince individuals that STEM fields are interesting.
“In the 1960s we didn’t need such programs because we were going to the moon. We were reaching for an unreachable target that all of history said could not be done,” said Tyson. “People were climbing over themselves to get into the physics classes, into the math classes.”
Tyson sees hope in the next generation of graduates to reverse the trend of STEM illiteracy.
“All of you are uniquely positioned to not only reverse that trend, but restore America to what so many of us remember it to be firsthand, and so many of the rest of us read about: those days where America essentially led the world in every possible way we could measure it. It’s in your hands to make that happen again.”
–John Robertson IV