Reprinted here with the permission of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written permission of the editor.

Published: Wednesday, April 29, 1998
Edition: METRO
Section: NEWS
Page#: 14A


by George (Pinky) Nelson

Maybe it's because I am one, but the phrase "it doesn't take a rocket scientist" drives me crazy. That's probably because it's typically used to justify an action that is being undertaken in anything but a scientific way.

For example: It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that all we need to do to fix the schools is to run them like businesses, or to give every kid a computer, or require uniforms. These aren't necessarily bad ideas, but they haven't been clearly thought through. Or, as we used to say at NASA, they lack a systems approach.

Now, we don't necessarily need more rocket scientists. But we do need leaders and citizens who can think like scientists and schools that can produce them.

There's a classic videotape made at a Harvard University graduation a few years ago that illustrates exactly what I mean. In the opening scene, young graduates and faculty members still in their caps and gowns answer this question: Why is it warmer in the summer and colder in the winter? Twenty-two out of 25 of them got the answer wrong. Just as disturbing was how confidently and articulately they offered their incorrect explanations. They didn't recognize the contradiction between their typical explanation - it's warmer in summer because the Earth is closer to the sun - and their knowledge that when it's summer in Boston, it's winter in Sydney.

They knew lots of stuff, but not how to think about it. Those of us in education must take most (if not all) of the blame. We've become burdened by the overwhelming amount of new knowledge and the perceived need to lay it all out. Too often, we never get around to asking students to fit all the knowledge together and reflect on what it means. This kind of careful thinking is scientific thinking, and it's useful in all aspects of life.

Another part of the problem is that most people seem to believe that there is a difference between scientific thinking and everyday thinking. For example, they know that to build and launch a space shuttle requires clear, quantitative and careful thinking. Otherwise, the consequences are both dire and visible. People can die; billions of dollars can be wasted.

But the fact is, these same scientific thinking skills can be used to improve the chances of success in virtually any endeavor, from building a bridge or performing heart surgery to managing a business or designing a school curriculum. Clearly, most people haven't developed the capacity to think this way. Otherwise, they wouldn't buy lottery tickets that they can't afford. They wouldn't consistently fall for cheap promises and easy answers from politicians. They wouldn't become victims of medical quackery or misinformation from tobacco companies. They wouldn't keep employing the same failed strategies, both in their personal lives and in society at large, just because that's what they've always done.

"Imagine a nation whose citizens are science-literate" is a phrase we use often in our work with educators. To us, science literacy is not just an idle conjecture. We're working hard to make it happen by providing tools and training to educators so that they can help prepare today's students for a future that will be increasingly shaped by science and technology. As science-literate adults, these citizens of the next century will be able to think like rocket scientists.

- George (Pinky) Nelson, from Willmar, Minn., is a research astronomer and director of Project 2061, a nationwide science, mathematics and technology initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He flew three space shuttle missions from 1978 to 1989 while a NASA astronaut.

© Copyright 1998 Star Tribune. Republished here with the permission of the Star Tribune. No Further republication or redistrubtion is permitted without the written permission of the Star Tribune.

Nelson, G. 1998. You Don't Have to be a Rocket Scientist to Think Like One. Minneapolis Star Tribune.