Technology Literacy: What Informal Education Has to Offer
Building Technology Literacy
By Cary Sneider, Larry Bell, David Rabkin, and David Ellis
We live in an age of ever-accelerating technological change, yet at the
Museum of Science in Boston, our programs have tended to focus primarily
on science. In the past two years, a strategic planning process has led
us to conclude that, in order to serve our visitors' needs, we must enhance
the presence of technology in the museum and place it on an equal footing
To do so means shifting our
priorities. It also means defining exactly what we mean by "technology."
Discussions among staff, visitors, and trustees-including experts in both
science and technology-have generated a range of views. Some feel we should
represent science and technology as distinctly different; others, that
we should emphasize their similarities. These discussions have resulted
not only in broader definitions and deeper understanding of technology,
but also in new perspectives on how it is related to science and society.
Defining our terms
As noted in a 2002 report from
the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council,
Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology,
Americans typically use the term "technology" in too narrow
a sense. We speak of "advanced technologies," meaning the latest
gadgets, such as computers and DVD players. Or we say "older technologies,"
referring to machines from our parents' era, such as the first transistor
radios and tape recorders. Few people would think of farming or cooking
as technologies-yet, strictly speaking, the devices and the processes
used to produce and prepare food are indeed technologies. If we, as museum
educators, hope to broaden visitors' understanding of the term, it is
important for us to be clear about our own definition.
In coming to a definition, our
group was struck by a statement in anthropologist Ben R. Finney and astronomer
Eric M. Jones's Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience,
the published proceedings of a conference the two scientists organized in
1983. Finney and Jones wrote, "What makes us different from other expansionary
species is our ability to adapt to new habitats through technology: We invent
tools and devices that enable us to spread into areas for which we are not
biologically adapted. As this technological capacity developed, it allowed
our distant ancestors to spread over Earth and now enables us to contemplate
leaving our natal planet."
In its broadest sense,
then, technology encompasses all of the products and processes that have
been designed and created by people to solve a problem or to meet a human
need. That includes not only cell phones, computers, and robots, but also
spoons and chopsticks, woven clothing and knitted sweaters, water systems
and sewer systems, and methods for growing, storing, cooking, and preserving
foods. To understand just how pervasive technology is in our world, look
around the room and imagine what you would see if everything designed and
created by people were to disappear. You would probably find yourself standing
naked in a field or forest.
Scientist or engineer?
LEGO/Logo and other popular engineering courses offered at the Museum of Science give visitors of all ages a chance to learn first-hand about the design process.
Photo courtesy Museum of Science
It is widely accepted that the role of science centers is to communicate not just the products of
science, but also the nature of scientific inquiry. Similarly, to be effective
communicators of technology, we must communicate how new technologies
are developed. One important step is to address a common misconception
about the creators of those technologies.
According to Ioannis Miaolis,
dean of the College of Engineering at Tufts University, the limited way
most Americans use the term "engineer" is a major barrier to the
advancement of technology education in our country. Although some people
might identify an engineer as someone who builds roads and bridges, to most
the word connotes a person who maintains or operates heavy machinery-a railroad
engineer, for example, or a ship's engineer, or even the person who operates
a snowplow for the "highway engineering" department.
Speaking recently at the museum
to a group of educational leaders, Miaolis noted that in Europe (and,
to be fair, in some U.S. academic and business circles), engineers enjoy
the same high status as scientists and are widely respected as the creative
drivers of modern society. As educators, Miaolis said, we must work to
expand people's understanding of engineers' work and their role in society.
One approach is to communicate
the similarities and differences between scientists and engineers. Both
professions require years of training and practical experience, as well
as strong ability in mathematics and critical thinking. Both engage in
research, using models, simulations, and experiments to refine their ideas.
Both often support each other: A chemical process discovered by a scientist
may form the basis of a new energy technology, while a telescope designed
by an engineer may help scientists observe X rays from the stars. In fields
like genetic engineering or nanotechnology, the line between discovery
and invention is so fine that it is hard to make any distinction.
The primary difference between
scientists and engineers lies in their goals. The scientist's goal is
to understand the natural world, while the engineer's is to design a device
or process that solves a problem or meets a need. There are other differences
as well. Scientific inquiry involves activities like formulating a researchable
question, applying relevant theory, generating hypotheses, and designing
experiments. Technological innovation starts by framing a problem to be
solved or a need to be satisfied, and continues through generating and
evaluating potential solutions, creating a design within constraints,
and building and testing prototypes.
In other words, technological
innovation is not simply applied science; it is a field in its own right.
And it is as important for museum visitors to learn about engineers' work
and the technologies they create as it is for them to learn about scientists'
work and the knowledge they produce.
The social dimension
A key concept we wish to communicate
at the Museum of Science is the interaction among science, technology,
and society. Society provides the institutions within which scientists
and engineers work, as well as the funds to pay their salaries and purchase
their equipment. Human values, needs, and problems determine in large
part what questions scientists investigate and what problems engineers
tackle. In return, new scientific knowledge and technologies bring about
changes in human society.
Some discoveries or inventions
may have only subtle effects, while others, such as the automobile and
electric power, have a profound impact. Technological choices also affect
the global environment, resulting in significant changes in flora, fauna,
land use, and even climate. That our present world differs from the world
of a century ago can be traced to the interplay of scientific discovery
and technological innovation.
To clarify this perspective
and guide our own thinking, we created the "Sci-Tech Circle" (see below), a diagram that illustrates the interrelationship of
science, technology, and their products. At the heart of the circle is
society, which drives scientific inquiry and technological innovation
and is, in turn, affected by new technologies and new scientific knowledge.
A new framework for technology
The big ideas outlined in this
article-a broader definition of technology, a clearer communication of
the work of engineers, and an emphasis on the central role of society-underlie
the conceptual framework we are now using for the overall direction and
focus of our technology efforts.
We started with a definition
in the Standards for Technological Literacy published in 2000 by
the International Technology Education Association (available online at
ITEA Standards identify a technologically literate person as one who "understands,
in increasingly sophisticated ways that evolve over time, what technology
is, how it is created, and how it shapes society and, in turn, is shaped
While pondering how a science
center might address those aspects of technology literacy, we came across
Alice Carnes' April 1986 Museum News article, "Showplace,
Playground or Forum?" Carnes posed her title question and asked,
"Which of these three functions should be served by a museum?"
Our answer: "All three!"
In our Technology Showcase,
visitors will learn what technology is and what is happening in key areas
of the field. They'll look at new and historic developments and find out
how scientific knowledge and technological innovation are linked.
In our Technology Playground, visitors will directly experience
the creative, design, and engineering processes-imagining and inventing
things of their own, learning how engineers solve problems, and trying
their hand at finding solutions to a big challenge.
In our Technology Forum, visitors will examine why technologies
are developed and what their impact is on people and the environment.
They'll encounter historical and cultural perspectives on specific technological
developments. This is where we will explore conflicting views on technological
development, stimulating discussion about how to improve the decisions
we make as individuals, as communities, and as a society.
In parallel with our strategic
planning, we have undertaken initiatives to advance technology education.
These include expansion of our Computer Clubhouse program to a worldwide
network (thanks to a major grant from Intel Corporation); in-depth coverage
of scientific discoveries and inventions in our Current Science and Technology
Center; engineering courses (such as "LEGO/Logo," "Egg
Drop Extravaganza," and "Robotics"); engineering workshops
for school district teams and career programs for guidance counselors;
and exhibitions and programs on engineering topics, including Boston's
massive "Big Dig."
We will continue to experiment
with the showcase, playground, and forum formats, integrating them into
an overall technology education strategy. We look forward to exchanges
with colleagues as we envision a science/technology center that fully
engages visitors in scientific inquiry and technological innovation.
At the Museum of Science,
Boston, Cary Sneider is vice president, programs; Larry Bell is vice president,
exhibits; David Rabkin is vice president, technology; and David Ellis
is president and director. For more information, visit www.mos.org.