We live in a society where progress is driven by scientific and technological change. An understanding of science is no longer a frill for citizens, but a necessity. Our educational system, however, has failed to produce a scientifically literate public. In this lecture I will propose the types of scientific knowledge citizens need to function in a technological society, including that necessary for public policy decisions, measurements of scientific literacy, and ways in which the educational system (both formal and informal) can be used to deliver that knowledge. I will introduce three heretical notions about scientific education for non-professionals – notions that, if widely adopted, would dramatically improve scientific literacy in the country. In keeping with the traditions of the Society, these heretical notions will be controversial and provide a basis for spirited discussion.
James Trefil is the Clarence J Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University. Before coming to GMU in 1987, he had been on the faculty of the University of Virginia, where he eventually became University Professor and Professor of Physics. He has held several appointments as Visiting Scholar at the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. Earlier in his career he was at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), Laboratory for Nuclear Sciences at MIT, German Electron Synchrotron Laboratory (Hamburg), University of Illinois, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory.
He has written extensively about science for the general audience, including more than 40 books. He has served as Contributing Editor for Science for USA TODAY Weekend and as a regular contributor and science consultant for Smithsonian and Astronomy Magazines. He has also served as a science commentator and member of the Science Advisory Board for National Public Radio and for numerous PBS productions, and as Principal Science Consultant to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. He is currently Chief Science Consultant to the McDougal-Littell Middle School Science Project.
He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association of the Advancement of Science, and the World Economic Forum. He has served as a member of the Davos Global Issues Group and as a General Councilor of the American Physical Society. He received the 2000 Andrew W. Gemant Award for linking physics to the arts and humanities, given by the American Institute of Physics and the inaugural Science Book Editor’s Award of the AAAS. In 2008 he was given the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award. He is also a recipient of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Science Journalism Award and of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He was Phi Beta Kappa national lecturer for 2003-2004. His most recent book is “Why Science?” [amazon.com]
His interest in scientific literacy began with a contributed essay to E. D. Hirsch's “Cultural Literacy” and continued through participation as a co-author of the “New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” (3rd edition, 2002). His textbook, “The Sciences: An Integrated Approach” with Robert Hazen (now going into its 6th edition), has been widely adopted, and he has served on the Content Review Boards for the National Science Education Standards and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
He has published over 100 papers in professional journals and has made contributions to research in elementary particle physics, fluid mechanics, medical physics (including cancer research) and the earth sciences. He received his B.S. in physics from the University of Illinois and won a Marshall scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied physics and the philosophy of science and received the B.A. and M.A. degrees. He finished his studies as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Stanford University, where he received an M.S. and Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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