How Science Education Can Save the World

The recent Paris Climate Accord represents a major breakthrough in global climate collaboration. But at the same time, the Accord amounts to merely diplomatic blather - a small piece of paper - in the face of the many billions of metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted across the globe each year. Both the USA and China have committed to steep cuts in their carbon dioxide emissions, but what's it going to take to make these commitments become reality? Some point to the need for breakthroughs in clean energy technologies, turning away from the business-as-usual burning of fossil fuels; others call for the skill and political will required to build clean energy markets.

However, I believe something even more fundamental is needed - I'm calling for a change in the way we teach science and math to produce citizens who are more informed and engaged, able to demand from our elected leaders what our nation needs for its very survival. If this seems like a leap, let me connect the dots by addressing the following two questions.

First, why do we make our roughly 15 million high school students across the USA take science and math? Only a small fraction of these students will earn college degrees in the science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields, so inspiring the next generation of STEM workers cannot possibly be the primary reason. If it is to beef up high school transcripts to make college applicants more competitive, this seems like a colossal waste of time for students and teachers alike. In the end, it must be to prepare an informed and critical citizenry - able to understand the magnitude of the task in front of us Americans to address problems like global warming, and to hold our leaders accountable for their positions and policies.

For example, we, the people, need to continually remind our elected officials that the US spews roughly 6.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, virtually all of which comes from burning fossil fuels. We, the people, cannot let our leaders forget the fact that 82% of energy produced in the USA still comes from burning fossil fuels, while we get only 4.7% from clean, renewables such as wind, solar, and hydro-electric. And we, the people, need to ask our leaders why the fossil fuel industry is still subsidized by the American government - indeed by us, the American tax payers.

In short, we need to reinvent our own energy industry. But we cannot do this without becoming properly informed citizens through sufficient education in science and math.

Which brings me to my second important question: why exactly are science and math taught the way they are today? Reinventing our energy industry requires our children (and their parents) to learn how to integrate scientific ideas - for example, the chemistry of fuels and the physics of global warming - along with social ideas such as the economy of scale and the policy of market subsidy. Yet virtually no one learns science and math this way. Instead, teachers, who admittedly have only the best intentions but often have their hands tied by standardized testing, slice and dice problems such as global warming into fundamental principles taught in naked abstraction. And so often their students can be heard asking "when will I ever need to know this?"

The result? Broad swaths of learners alienated from math and science, unable to apply their STEM learning to real-world problems, left powerless to advocate for the disruptive changes needed to make the Paris Accord a reality.

So there you have it - the real hurdle to addressing global climate change is how we teach science, technology, engineering and math. Imagine a world where students tackle these subjects in the context of real-world problems like global warming. Imagine a world where students stop asking "when will I ever need to know this?" and start asking "why can't we develop more energy from wind, solar, biomass, and fusion?" Imagine a world with an informed and empowered electorate, demanding changes to our energy policy based on sound science.

I know this world is possible because I've seen it with my own eyes. Now it's time to introduce this world to the millions of students learning math and science in American high schools. This is a big job, and the clock is ticking. Let's start today.