A new report aimed at federal and state policy makers calls for a broad-based effort to increase the technological literacy of all Americans by integrating technology concepts into every school subject, beginning in kindergarten.

The report, entitled “Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology,” was released earlier this month by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council’s Center for Education.

After a two-year study, the report’s authors conclude a majority of Americans are technologically illiterate. “Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works, or the implications of its use, or even where it comes from,” the report said.

Results of a Gallup poll commissioned by the International Technology Education Association (ITEA) and released at the same time as the report seem to support this conclusion.

Forty-seven percent of the 1,000 Americans surveyed couldn’t describe how energy turns into electricity, and 46 percent incorrectly said they might be electrocuted by using a portable phone in the bathtub, according to the poll.

An overwhelming majority—97 percent—of the people surveyed agreed that technology should be included in the school curriculum, and 61 percent said students should be evaluated for technological literacy before they graduate.

But the poll also suggests that many Americans don’t understand how technology connects to other fields, such as mathematics, science, and engineering. And many people view technology too narrowly as being mostly computers and the internet.

“Technically Speaking” makes 11 recommendations that aim not only to create a high-tech work force, but also to help members of the general population understand technology so they can make better decisions about everyday activities, such as whether to eat genetically engineered foods or submit personal information over the internet.

“I think getting across the idea that technology is more than just computers is always a great idea,” said Kathryn Thornton, assistant dean for engineering at the University of Virginia.

Being able to make sound decisions is important for every American, too.

“Society affects technology and technology affects society—just look at history,” Thornton said. From building steam ships to conducting stem-cell research, “our moral beliefs definitely affect how technology develops,” she said.

The report, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Battelle Memorial Institute, maintains that learning about technology should begin in kindergarten, and the connection between all subjects and technology should appear throughout a student’s education. It also says technology should be infused into the curricula, teaching materials, and student assessments.

Nationally, NSF and United States Department of Education (ED) should provide incentives for publishers to include technology content in new science, history, social studies, and language arts textbooks, the report said.

Likewise, technologically focused agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Institutes of Health should support the development of curricula for teachers of all subjects and grades, especially to help make clear the connections between technology, science, and other school subjects.

“Technology needs to be taught as a separate subject area—probably at the high school level—and it needs to be integrated into other subject areas as well,” agreed Kendall Starkweather, executive director of ITEA.

Two years ago, Starkweather’s organization released a set of standards defining what students should know about all forms of technology—not just computers and the internet—at each grade level. These standards could serve as a scaffolding for states and school districts as they try to implement the report’s suggestions, he said. (See “New ITEA tech-ed standards target tech illiteracy,” May 2000, http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=183.)

Although many educators would agree that technology education is important, they say the challenge is to find room in the curriculum, given that federal accountability requirements emphasize core subjects such as reading and math.

“I think the report has some merit,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at Texas’ Plano Independent School District. “To function as a contributing citizen in this century, we all have to read, be ‘number-aware,’ know how to find and evaluate information, and use technology as presented to us in many situations.

“It’s obvious that understanding how to use ‘technology’ appropriately has been an issue in this country for hundreds of years,” Hirsch continued. “This argument is not new, just a method to get the term ‘technology literacy’ mentioned in the same breath as other literacies.”

Links:

National Academy of Engineering
http://www.nae.edu

National Research Council
http://www.nas.edu/nrc

“Technically Speaking” report
http://www.nae.edu/techlit

International Technology Education Association
http://www.iteawww.org

Gallup Poll results
http://www.iteawww.org/TAA/ITEAGallup.htm

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TECH LITERACY

Here are the key recommendations of “Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology”:

Strengthening the presence of technology in formal and informal education

  • Federal and state agencies should create education laws that integrate technology content into K-12 standards, curricula, instructional materials, and student assessment in non-technology subjects.
  • States should better align their K-12 standards, curriculum frameworks, and student assessment in non-technology subjects such as history, science, and language arts with national standards that stress technology connections throughout all subjects. Federally funded instructional materials and initiatives should also stress technology connections.
  • Policy makers at all levels should introduce the word “technology” into the titles and contents of standards, curricula, and instructional materials.
  • NSF, ED, and teacher education accrediting bodies should provide incentives for teacher colleges to prepare teachers to teach about technology throughout the curriculum.

Developing the research base

  • NSF should support the development of one or more assessment tools for monitoring technological literacy among students and the public.
  • NSF and ED should fund research on how people learn about technology, and the results of this research should be applied in formal and informal educational settings.

Enhancing informed decision making

  • Industry, federal agencies, and science and technology museums should provide more opportunity for non-technical people to become involved in discussions about technological developments.
  • Federal and state government agencies and private foundations concerned about good governance should support executive education programs intended to increase the technological literacy of government and industry leaders.
  • United States engineering societies should underwrite the costs of establishing government and media fellow programs with the goal of creating a cadre of policy experts and journalists with a background in engineering.

Rewarding teaching excellence and educational innovation

  • NSF, in collaboration with industry partners, should provide funding for innovative, effective approaches to improving the technological literacy of students and the public at large.
  • The White House should add a Presidential Award for Excellence in Technology Teaching to the awards it currently offers for mathematics and science teaching.