Online College Courses Can Mitigate the Perils of Science Illiteracy in America

Science illiteracy is a serious problem in America.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that only an approximate quarter of the American public is sufficiently knowledgeable about science to follow science issues and render an informed opinion on them1.  Meanwhile, other nations are producing science-informed populations and gaining strategic economic and political advantages over the United States.

All the advances enjoyed and required by modern society – from improved health and longevity to an incredible array of functional products, technologies, and processes – are specifically attributable to continuous learning and the compounding of science knowledge. National security and prosperity are facilitated and accelerated by science literacy, not just through new products and technology, but also through informed and rational decision-making.

Jon Miller, Ph.D. of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy contends America’s science literacy primarily stems from undergraduate college courses.  High school science courses are often elementary and poorly taught by inadequately trained teachers with low expectations of students.  Yet, “college courses come with high expectations” and competent professors who “insist that you actually do work – or you fail.1” Thus, Miller believes a critical factor to improving science literacy in America lies in increasing Americans’ access to college.  Online college programs that include science courses provide this access.

Individuals and society reap enormous benefits from both the process of studying science and its resultant knowledge.   This fact cannot be over-emphasized.  It is the reason for America’s current emphasis on STEM education and why American colleges and universities require a year of science study for all degree programs.

Studying science is integrative; it builds and reinforces students’ knowledge and multiple skillsets.  Observation, mathematical, and analytical skills are honed through the process of data gathering and compilation. Writing and communication skills are sharpened in preparing summary reports of problems posed, testing procedures followed, findings observed, and conclusions reached.  Since science experimentation involves risk, students learn to appreciate the importance of safety, to recognize potential hazards, and to proactively organize activities.  They also learn the importance of accuracy in measurements and observations, how small errors can have huge consequences, and how mistakes are often the basis of significant learning.

Science illuminates and explains the natural world by employing the effective problem solving skills embodied in Scientific Method experimentation.  The Scientific Method’s logical framework fosters the discovery of truth by teaching individuals: to be prudent and skeptical; to question things not understood; to postulate answers (hypothesis); to devise and conduct test of hypothesis; to analyze observations and results; and to draw rational conclusions.  This pragmatic, contemplative process yields reliable and verifiable information and a thorough understanding of science concepts.  Thus, the study of science yields much more than science-specific knowledge, it also builds logic, pragmatic, and critical thinking skills that well serve individuals and society.

Internet technology allows colleges to offer courses fully online and expand science literacy while meeting the demands of today’s learners.  Yet, a quandary over how to provide the hands-on laboratory experimentation activities essential to science learning has resulted in relatively few institutions offering sciences within their online course mix.  The subsequent lack of online science courses denies Americans – working adults, single parents, military personnel, and others whose complicated lives prevent them from being on campus – the opportunity to gain science knowledge, complete degrees, qualify for better careers, and improve their families’ lives.

An effective solution for providing online students with essential science laboratory experiences was created by my husband Dr. Peter Jeschofnig and me.  We are retired college educators who are passionate about science literacy and who pioneered the concept of single-student/single-use LabPaqs.   We founded Hands-On Labs, Inc. to produce these academically aligned collections of science materials that allow students to perform rigorous, college-level science experiments anytime/anywhere. LabPaqs provide the flexibility to acquire the science literacy students and society need.

Developed in 1994, LabPaqs are now in use by universities, community colleges, and career colleges worldwide.  They span most science disciplines including:  biology, chemistry, physics, geology, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, plus environmental and forensic sciences.  With LabPaqs, online students can safely perform the same experiments and utilize the same materials as their campus-based peers.  There are alternatives to LabPaqs for providing online students with hands-on experimentation.  However, 92% of LabPaq students achieve an A or B in their courses. Data also confirms they do as well as, but usually better than, students in campus laboratories. Despite online science courses’ proven effectiveness, they are still not frequently offered, which exacerbates science illiteracy.

Science literacy is vitally important to the continued progress and prosperity of the United States.  America faces numerous science-related issues that must be rationally resolved. It requires science literate personnel to fill over ten million job openings expected in health, technology, energy, and other in STEM-related fields by 20182.  Utilizing internet technology to deliver online courses expands Americans’ access to a college education, and colleges can increase America’s science literacy by offering more science courses online.

Linda Jeschofnig is co-founder and CEO of Colorado-based Hands-On Labs, Inc.  She is also co-author of Teaching Lab Science Courses Online a book exploring the obstacles to teaching laboratory science courses completely online and solutions educators can use to overcome them.

1 Janet Raloff,  Science literacy: U.S. college courses really count, Science News: The Magazine of the Society for Science & the Public, March 13th, 2010; Vol.177 #6 (p. 13)

2 Carnevale, Smith, Strohl  (2010) Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

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