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Scientific Literacy During the Pandemic

News | May 10, 2021 | Share on:

Dr. Bonnie Schmidt on Scientific Literacy

To mask or not to mask?

One of the earliest calls to action during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the impact of scientific literacy on personal decision-making and action. It exposed an unfortunate tension between opinion and evidence, which could be resolved, at least in part, through STEM1 education. For the first time in history, the world watched science happen in real-time. As a trained scientist, I was shocked by the outrage and conspiracy theories on social media about the value of masks; once transmission pathways were confirmed, it was clear that a bit of cloth went a long way to supporting survival.

For some people, the pandemic offered an unprecedented opportunity to marvel as the scientific community leveraged its collective expertise to sequence a new virus, produce several highly effective vaccines and strive to immunize the entire world – in little more than one year. For others, the speed of development and evolution of information was overwhelming, causing them to focus disproportionately on potential risks.

STEM education can develop the knowledge, skills and identities needed in the fight against COVID-19 and other global health challenges, climate change and more. The recent 3M State of Science2 survey showed that appreciation for science and trust in scientists increased significantly in 2020, compared to past years. It reported an increased understanding of the importance of science in our lives (69% responded that science is very important to society, up 11 points from pre-pandemic). A strong majority (82%) of respondents said there are negative consequences for a world that does not value science. Importantly, 73% of respondents are now more likely to agree that a strong STEM education is crucial.

While these results about science, in general, are positive, the results are more varied when specific STEM-based issues are in question. The Pew Research Centre released a 2020 report that led with “science and scientists held in high esteem across global publics”3 but showed that views on specific issues are highly variable. For example, Canadian responses were evenly split on whether the development of artificial intelligence (AI) has been good for society (46% good for society; 43% bad for society). With respect to genetically modified foods, 39% felt they are unsafe and 33% said they did not know enough to say.

The pervasive role of AI, the role of genetic food modification for climate adaptation, and other critical challenges demand informed and educated people for engagement, public discourse and policy-making. The pandemic has raised public awareness of the importance of STEM education for our future. However, only 36% of Canadian respondents on the Pew survey2 felt that primary/secondary STEM education in this country was best or above average internationally. We must not waste this opportunity to enhance STEM education and ensure all youth graduate ready to participate in meaningful ways.

For nearly 30 years, Let’s Talk Science has been a trusted, national STEM education partner. We understand the many, real constraints on educators and the education system. We also know that a deep and shared desire exists to support youth and develop a generation of leaders. Along with our many partners, Let’s Talk Science can be counted on to help develop citizens with the required knowledge, skills and identities needed for life.

1 STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. It represents specific fields and, more broadly, educational approaches that are multi-disciplinary and integrated.