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STEM

Technologically Literate or Illiterate?

It’s been just over four months since I started this blog: A Bridge for Business & STEM. While still relatively new to blogging, I am happy to report that 15 posts have been made to this website. Equally important, I have received a few comments. As I shared in my first post, Getting Started, the focus of my blog is to discuss business and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) related topics. 

To date, I’ve written about a number of issues related to business, STEM, or both. While I am still waiting for the shape and form of this blog to emerge, I do plan to focus on new or changing technology in future posts, while continuing to write about ongoing developments in energy as well as other biz-STEM topics. The content and focus of A Bridge for Business & STEM continues to evolve.

The topic for today’s post is technology. If I asked most individuals “what is technology?”, I would probably get a lot of blank stares, a few references to cell phones, computers, and robots, and a long-list of other hodge-podge answers.

So, what is technology? According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, technology is:

1a: the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area, e.g. engineering, medical technology; b: a capability given by the practical application of knowledge (a car’s fuel-saving technology)

2: a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge (new technologies for information storage)

3: the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor (educational technology)

Examples of technology:

The government is developing innovative technologies to improve the safety of its soldiers. The car has the latest in fuel-saving technology.

An even more important question is why do we need to know more about technology? This question is the subject of a report, Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More about Technology (2002). The report is one of the final products of a two-year study by the Committee on Technological Literacy (National Academy of Engineering) and the Center for Education (part of the National Research Council).

The committee adopted a broad definition of technology that encompasses both the tangible artifacts of the human-designed world (e.g., bridges, automobiles, computers, satellites, medical imaging devices, drugs, genetically engineered plants) and the systems of which these artifacts are a part (e.g., transportation, communications, health care, food production), as well as the people, infrastructure, and processes required to design, manufacture, operate, and repair the artifacts. This comprehensive view of technology differs considerably from the more common, narrower public conception, which associates technology almost exclusively with computers and other electronics. [Ref 1]

The report goes on to make the case for technological literacy. The committee’s findings show that to achieve technological literacy, three independent dimensions must be present: 

  • knowledge
  • ways of thinking and acting
  • capabilities

Similar to literacy in math, science, history, or reading, a technologically literate person can participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the world around them. We, and by we I mean Americans, could all benefit from technological literacy. One of the benefits is a more knowledgeable public that can make better and well-informed decisions on a variety of topics and/or situations.  

As an example, our elected leaders would benefit from a comprehensive understanding of the nature of technology — a recognition, for example, that all technology involves trade-offs and can result in unintended consequences. Citizen participation would also give policy makers and technical experts a better understanding of citizens’ hopes and fears about technology.

This would have been extremely beneficial for all parties in the Keystone XL Pipeline discussion a few months ago. While one group argued for expedited approval of the pipeline to lower gas prices, the other side argued that the environmental impact report was not complete and therefore the project should not be approved until then. A technologically literate person would know that even if the pipeline had been approved this past spring, it would have had no impact on current gas prices, and the jury is still out as to whether or not the project will decrease gas prices in the future.  

Another debate in the Keystone Pipeline argument was the number of jobs that the project would generate. The figures ranged from 2,000 to 200,000. Members of the public who are technologically literate would have a better sense for the number of jobs required for the project during the design and engineering phase, and the jobs required to construct the pipeline including the delivery of piping and other equipment for the project. A better understanding of technology enables better product choices. Citizens and elected officials would also make better choices for their communities, cities, states, and the nation.  

Technological literacy is not designed to determine or sway an individual’s opinion. There are numerous media – both old and new – that are already in place to do that. It does, however, ensure that the individual is well informed. Technological literacy is especially important for leaders in business, government, and the media, who make or influence decisions that affect many others. Most viewers and readers want to understand the issues and facts. Unfortunately, by the time the spin doctors apply their finishing touches on many controversial topics, what one believes is not based on fact, but whose politics you believe.

More knowledgeable and technological literate members of the public could eventually influence the supply of tech savvy workers. These workers would be more likely to have the knowledge and abilities – and find it easier to learn the skills they need – for jobs in today’s technology-oriented workplaces. While the U.S.has yet to produce the amount of jobs for those seeking them, many tech jobs have gone unfilled due to worker shortages.

Technological literacy is good for business. It is also good for the United States.

References:

  1. Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology; Committee on Technological Literacy, National Academy of Engineering & National Research Council; Greg Pearson and A. Thomas Young, Editors, ISBN: 0-309-51013-9, 170 pages, 7 x 10, (2002)

This PDF is available from the National Academies Press at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10250.html.

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About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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