The Future of Humankind Depends on Quality Science Education

9/20/10

Each decade produces new insights into science, especially life sciences, where we are learning more about ourselves. As our society becomes increasingly dependent on its scientific legacy, it becomes more and more important that each new generation understands the role of science in our lives. However, the accumulation of facts can be daunting to students and educators alike. How do we meet the challenge of educating everyone to understand the role of science in our lives? Fortunately, the principles of science don’t change.

Our role in science education

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has a long history of contributing to the science education of the community in a variety of ways, formal and informal. Our Science Education Partnership program, for example, has trained hundreds of middle and high school science teachers for 20 years. Our Hutch High science symposium has exposed more than 1,000 high school students to real-life laboratory science.

One might wonder why a cancer research institution like the Hutchinson Center should concern itself with K-12 education. I have been thinking increasingly about this as I transition out of the position of Center president and begin to devote more of my own time to education.

The future of humankind depends on science and technology

The answer is simply that the future of humankind depends upon implementing our science and technology in ways that can sustain a human population rapidly approaching 9 billion people on a planet that is already being exploited beyond its limits. As I become more informed about the challenges of providing clean water, adequate food, energy, health, biodiversity, education, employment and the other needs of people, I am actually hopeful that it is possible to support our population so that all people can have a rewarding life.

Science and technology do have the answers. However, we will need to make some dramatic changes in the way we utilize natural resources, and that means that people, businesses, countries and international organizations will need to reach consensus on appropriate sustainable and equitable policies. Lay people will need to understand the scientific and technical issues well enough to support appropriate policy, and lawmakers will need to think far beyond the next election.

Unfortunately, science does not come naturally to people. Our inability to generate societies that can make intelligent decisions is the biggest threat, in my mind, to our future. Unfortunately, even people who study science and teach science rarely understand science as a process. Only those of us who have spent a major part of lives doing science can really appreciate how it works. You might think I am talking about sophisticated and esoteric concepts involving complex mathematics. I am not. I am talking about humility.

But science is only part of the answer

What scientists understand, through innumerable failures and the rare success, is that science is a process that involves approaching the truth through trial and error, always realizing that you have only a part of the answer. Solving humanity’s problems will require that understanding. We must agree on goals, accept the best estimates and hypothetical solutions, work toward improvement, constantly monitor the outcomes and iteratively improve our performance.

Those of us who have learned this lesson through a lifetime of frustration studying how nature works must communicate this to the lay public. Our scientists have a critical role to play in that education and I hope that the Hutchinson Center will find a way to increase its commitment to educating the next generation.

This lesson begins in our elementary schools and in our homes. I was encouraged to pursue science by passionate teachers and I have been inspired by the science teachers that participate in our programs at the Hutchinson Center. Teachers throughout the country are striving to understand our rapidly changing world and the research community needs to come together to support that effort. Along with participating in science education programs in the community, teachers, students and parents can find links to additional resources the Hutchinson Center’s website.

Dr. Lee Hartwell will retire as president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the end of September, after which he will continue to be involved with the Center as director emeritus and will carry on his work in early cancer detection and science education. He has earned numerous prestigious awards for his research, including the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He is also the chief scientist of The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. Follow @

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  • http://www.bigeventfundraising.com Clay Boggess

    The biggest challenge is convincing all students that they need science. We need to do a better job of teaching the practical application and what science means to each individual as opposed to just ‘teaching for the test’.

  • http://www.nanotecnexus.org Adriana Vela

    Certainly a big challenge but one worth tackling. The USA Science & Engineering Festival has taken the approach to celebrate science the same way we celebrate star atheletes and movie stars. This is why we launched the PNW Science & Engineering Initiative in support of the USASEF and as a grassroots movement and hope to get the scientific community, industry, schools, orgs and others involved. It won’t be overnight but it can be done. We just need to put politics, ego and competition aside. That part is almost harder than getting kids interested in science. Makes me want to tell some of them to grow up and behave.

  • Suhadi Ibnu

    We need more ideas, thoughts and anticipations to face the uncertainty of the future. I agree with you that quality science education will greatly contribute to the future of humankind,