07/05/2011 03:22 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2011

In These Complex and Exciting Times, Why Science Literacy Matters

Everyone knows that the Internet gives us easy access to a plethora of information in the blink of an eye. But for all its wonders, it is also an unchartered frontier where much information is unfiltered, exposing us -- if we are not careful -- to inaccurate or misleading information in science, medicine, technology and other areas, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

In one such Internet episode recently, parents were strongly advised to forego immunizing their children based on one study that reported that vaccinations caused childhood autism. The study's claim was even endorsed by some celebrities on the net. Despite strong contravening evidence provided by the scientific community, many parents avoided the vaccinations. The study was later found to be fraudulent.

This begs the question: How discerning and discriminating is the average person in accepting the science, medical or technological information he obtains -- be it through the computer, the news media or other sources? Many people, especially those lacking science literacy, tend to believe what they read and hear without question or further investigation. But therein lies the danger, especially in an age when science and technology are impacting virtually every aspect of our lives at an increasing rate.

Developing a curiosity and appreciation for science (and an understanding of the process involved in sound scientific research) is essential to an effective citizenry. Equally important is a discriminating, questioning eye and ear for the science information we consume.

This also applies in double measure for our children, who will inherit the technological world of tomorrow, so it is essential that we begin preparing and motivating them now to take their place effectively as discerning consumers, and as innovators themselves in technology. That is the focus of the annual USA Science & Engineering Festival.

The festival -- the largest event of its kind in the nation celebrating science and technology -- is all about exciting kids and the general public about the wonders of science and engineering while inspiring the next generation of innovators.

During the exciting weeks of this event, students, including those participating in satellite locations across the nation, not only gain valuable insight into the many fields and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) but also skills in critical and analytical thinking, the scientific method and research process, group problem solving, research project presentation and how science and engineering is applied to everyday life.

These valuable episodes in learning spawn a lasting appreciation for science in young students and also help mold them into critical, discerning thinkers -- traits they will almost surely carry into adulthood.

Such skills, for example, will then serve them well as they navigate and weed their way through the reams of science vs. pseudoscience information they encounter on the Internet and other sources -- from assessing the safety of genetically modified foods for their family to evaluating the existence and consequences of global warming.

As David Meyer, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, says:

Our dilemma lies in the fact that vast segments of the population lack scientific literacy... We must renew and reinvigorate our science education to ensure our children are fully educated in scientific methodology, are able to understand new discoveries and, ultimately, have the wherewithal to make educated decisions based on what can be substantiated and what cannot.

In such learning, we know that students' interest and motivation skyrockets when it includes exciting interaction with actual cutting-edge scientists, engineers and high tech entrepreneurs, and the chance to participate in meaningful hands-on presentations in these fields in and outside the classroom. So these are the types of experiences that the festival provides in spades, including the chance for students to meet, and learn from, Nobel laureates.

These up-close-and-personal encounters are not only powerful motivators, but also expand students' knowledge of what advances are occurring in science and engineering, and who are the contemporary innovators making them happen. This contrasts sharply to a recent poll in which individuals were asked to name a living scientist. Forty-six percent of those polled were unable to name even one, and of those who did, the top three mentioned were Bill Gates, Al Gore and Albert Einstein, who died in 1955.

The festival culminates in a massive weekend expo gathering in Washington, D.C. on April 28-29, 2012, which engages students, teachers, parents and others in a multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary celebration of science and engineering, replete with an exciting array of interactive exhibits and demonstrations. The expo last year attracted more than half a million visitors and participants, and included over 750 sponsoring agencies, organizations and institutions from across the country.

Plans are underway for the 2nd USA Science & Engineering Festival, set for spring of 2012, and the expo for April 28-29 next year at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. This event will be expanded to include a wide range of world-class innovations and scientists from foreign countries, as well. Please plan to attend or participate! For more information on the festival, visit

As the overwhelming response to the festival and expo indicates, the time is ripe for all of us as citizens to take it upon ourselves to increase our knowledge of science and technology, and to especially make this knowledge available in exciting and lasting ways to our children as they move into both exciting and challenging times in science.