A Call for Technological Literacy

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  • G U E S T EDITORIAL

    A Call for Technological Literacy

    WILLIAM A. WUM, Presi&t, Natr'onal Academy OrEngSneering

    and the lnternet in the classroom. Certainly, educational technology

    Technology has transformed virtu- ally every aspect of American life. Peo- ple rely on technol- ogy every day in

    countless ways, including for trans- portation, communication, medical care, entertainment, the food they eat, the clothing they wear, and the buildings in which they live and work. Yet, most Americans do not understand how technology works, how it is c rea ted , how it impacts their daily lives, or its potential for changing the future.

    The nation's collective ignorance about technology is reflected in such seemingly trivial things as consumer discomfort with electronic appli- ances , like computers and V C R s . More worrisome, it surfaces in public discussion about the development and use of certain technologies. Informed, reasoned debate about such issues as nuclear power and cloning, for example, is nearly impos- sible today, although both technolo- gies will likely play critical roles in our future. For the most part, the dan- ger signs of technological illiteracy are subtle and largely ignored.

    Since becoming president of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), I have spoken out forcefully and often about the need for greater techno- logical literacy in the United States. I firmly believe that our continued suc- cess as a nation depends on all Ameri- cans having a firmer grasp of technological issues. This is especially true for our children, who are inheriting a world driven by, and by no small mea- sure dependent on, technology.

    By technological literacy, I mean the ability to understand, use, and make sound decisions about technology. I do not mean simply the use of computers

    is a potent tool, when used intelligently, but it is only one ele ment of the vision I want to promote.

    Benefits of Being Technologically Literate Skeptics may ask, will technological lit- eracy really make a difference? 1 believe so. A more technologically literate p o p ulace will be better able to recognize and exploit opportunities made possi- ble by advances in engineering, science, and technology. The technologically savvy can assess critically the risks and benefits of new technologies, thereby participating intelligently in the democ- ratic process, rather than being swayed

    are the most practical source of energy for missions like these, how safe must such plants be?

    It is hard to imagine members of Congress, let alone average citizens, making reasonable judgments about these issues without having a better understanding of technology than most now possess.

    Consequences of Technological Illiteracy What about the consequences of failing to adequately broaden and deepen US. technological literacy? There are many, some more tangible than others. In the short term, for example, low levels of technological literacy are an economic concern, both for individuals and for the nation. Children who do not have

    by purely political or emo- tional arguments.

    Consider, for example, the possibility of interplan- etary space travel or colo- nization of the moon. Both would require investments far in excess of anything undertaken so far by the US. space program. Much of these funds would go to research, design, manufac- ture, and test technologies U essential to the success of -

    U

    and questions: How do these Projects rank in importance COm-

    A more technologically literate populace will be better able to recognize and exploit opportunities made possible by advances in engineering, science, and technology.

    pared with seemingly more pressing national needs? How do we measure the short- and long-term success of such ventures? Who should participate in the actual missions, and how should these individuals be select- ed? How much serious injury or loss of life are we willing to accept to attain the goals set forth in high-risk projects like these? If nuclear-fueled power plants

    opportunities to develop basic techno- logical skills and understanding will be left behind in the job market as adults.

    It is also true that major policy deci- sions, affecting most aspects of modern life, a re involving technology to a greater and greater degree. Increasing- ly, leaders in government, industry, and

    Continued on page 12

    10 IEEE ComputerApplications in Power

  • Guest Editorial Continued from page IO

    academia will not be effective unless they can incorporate technological insights into their decision making.

    As an educational subject, technolc- gy can be a very useful and engaging way of integrating a range of disci- plines, such as mathematics, science, history, and language arts. The study of technology also can provide students with valuable experiences in problem- solving, design, teamwork, and public communication, skills useful across a broad range of professions. The failure of school systems to appreciate and exploit these benefits may doom their students, and ultimately the United States, to secondclass status.

    Less tangible perhaps, but neverthe- less very disturbing, are the potential long-term, cumulative consequences of living in a society increasingly depen- dent upon and at the same time rela- tively ignorant of the technological workings of the world. The number and importance of decisions affecting or affected by technology is certain to

    grow over the next few decades. As they do, one can imagine decision-mak- ing power becoming increasingly con- centrated in a technological elite. This situation would clearly contradict the fundamental democratic underpinnings of the United States.

    Alternatively, the impact of techno- logical illiteracy might be played out through a gradual diminution of US. sci- entific and technological prowess; irre- versible decline in the quality of U.S. education; more frequent and damaging misuses of technology; and more fre- quent and serious missed opportunities for exploiting technology for the benefit of all citizens.

    Taking Steps to Promote Technological Literacy I hope none of these scenarios comes to pass. Thankfully, many well-meaning organizations across the country are taking steps to promote technological literacy. Technology-based industries are sending their engineers into the K- 12 classroom; private foundations are supporting the development of innova- tive instructional materials that have a

    technology component; engineering professional societies are working local- ly and regionally with schools; and the technology education community is developing the first-ever set of K-12 standards for their field.

    Of course, much more needs to be done. The NAE, for its part, is embarking on a major effort to raise the visibility of technological literacy on the national education agenda. But all of us in the technical professions can play a role.

    Here are some suggestions. Find out whats happening in your local school system and encourage your company to become involved. Become a school volunteer yourself; most schools wel- come technically trained help. (Con- tact your professional engineering society if youre not sure how to do this; most have outreach programs already in place.) Find forums, such as PTA and school board meetings, to talk about technological literacy, or write an op-ed on the subject for your local newspaper. Urge your colleagues to do the same.

    Working together, we can make a dif- ference.

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