Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness is committed to educating the public about things nuclear and improving science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM education. Worldwide rankings of nations’ proficiency in these subjects among their school children show as many as 15 countries that perform better than the U.S. This realization has sparked an increased emphasis on these subjects among educators, the public and legislatures. A dedicated effort to regain a leadership position has been launched and should be supported by all of us. There are potential pitfalls however, that must be avoided.
Some cash-strapped school districts and universities have proposed reducing emphasis on subjects such as physical education, social sciences, humanities, music, and art in order to devote more resources to science, technology, engineering and math. A recent segment on the PBS News Hour featured an interview with Dr. Richard Brodhead, the President of Duke University, and actor John Lithgow. These gentlemen were cautioning against de-emphasizing the teaching of liberal arts, noting that contributions to skills such as critical thinking, necessary for all educational endeavors, are foundational to a liberal arts curriculum.
Whether truth and beauty are revealed by a particularly insightful line from a Shakespeare play, or by hypothesis, experimentation and calculation, we must respect both approaches and take from them the essential ingredients for a truly educated person.
So when we emphasize STEM, without qualification, we run the risk of marginalizing liberal arts subjects in our schools’ curricula. Recognizing this, some advocates of science, technology, engineering and math, have begun using the acronym STEAM, inserting an A, for Art. This does not represent a gratuitous nod to the arts, but rather reflects on the realization that the use of imagery, music and other art forms can be powerful teaching and learning tools, even for STEM subjects.
Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness conducts workshops for high school and middle school teachers to enable them to introduce basic concepts into their classrooms relating to the structure of the atom and the nucleus. While the written material is effective, the learning experience is invariably strengthened by the use of “hands-on” exercises. These exercises include representing something as difficult to comprehend as the level of background radiation to which we all are exposed as inches along a yardstick. Natural background radiation from the air, water, soil, our own bodies and the sun are represented as say, about 3 inches a year.
If we have an average number of diagnostic X-rays, we can add about 3 more inches for a total radiation dose of about 6 inches a year. Ramsar, Iran, has a background dose rate of nearly 250 inches (about 21 feet) a year with no detectable health effects. So it is sometimes easier to visualize the magnitude of a measurement in a familiar unit, like feet or inches, than in millisieverts or millirem. The same effect is seen in non-technical matters such as politics, where one cartoon can convey a more memorable message than a 1,200-word opinion editorial.
It is tempting to describe science as a way to determine the truth and to describe art as an expression of beauty. I believe they are much more closely aligned than that implies. I have often invoked an inscription on the side of the science building at the university I attended many years ago, which read, “Science is Truth, Truth is Beauty.”
Full STEAM ahead.
Clint Wolfe is the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness and formerly chaired the Technical Advisory Panel to the Department of Energy’s Plutonium Focus Area.