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Editorial: Even the Muppets know America needs science

Updated: November 11, 2011 2:11PM

When Elmo starts talking up science education, you know it’s time to listen.

American schoolchildren continue to fall behind in international math and science rankings, a troubling prospect for our nation’s ability to compete in the global economy. It threatens, as well, to further dumb down the level of public discourse on important science-based public policy issues, such as global warming.

Now Sesame Street is stepping up to do something about it. On Monday, the debut of the show’s 42nd season, Sesame Street introduced a new emphasis on so-called STEM skills — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Elmo, Grover, Bert, Ernie and the rest of crowd will be building bridges, launching rockets and generally talking the language of science — theories and hypotheses and the like.

The new emphasis really began online in January when Sesame Street posted a series of free science games for young children to play. (What’s your hypotheses? Will a ball of rubber bands float or sink?) As a Sesame Street executive told USA Today, young children are “natural scientists,” exploring the world around them to see how it works.

Sesame Street’s science agenda couldn’t come at a better time.

More than 40 percent of college students who start out majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics switch to something else before they graduate, says the Assocation of American Universities, which recently launched an initiative to fix that.

Equally alarming. according to the highly respected Program for International Student Assessment, 15-year-old students in the U.S. rank only 17th in science and 25th in math out of 34 industrialized countries.

The United States lags far behind countries such as South Korea, Finland, China and Canada.

How much does that matter? Plenty.

The Paris-based organization that compiles the rankings, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, estimates that if the U.S. were to boost its average score of 500 by just 25 points over the next 20 years, the U.S. economy would grow by $41 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010.

A better grasp by Americans of how good science works also would make it tougher for bad science to do harm.

Efforts to force the pseudo-science of creationism into biology classes might finally — 86 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial — be put to rest.

The cherry-picking science of global warming deniers might be dismissed.

Frightened parents might quit worrying that childhood vaccines will make their children autistic. The one 1998 study that made the link has been revealed as an elaborate fraud, while hundreds of other studies have found absolutely no link.

And fearmongering statements, bereft of science, made by would-be national leaders might scare nobody at all.

We’re thinking here, of course, of Republican presidential primary candidate Michele Bachmann, who warned a couple of weeks ago that an enormously effective and safe vaccine against cervical cancer is actually “very dangerous” and could cause mental retardation.

Yes, we know: Bachmann didn’t actually say the vaccine could cause mental retardation. She simply passed along, as if it were possibly true, an utterly baseless observation made by somebody else. Call it fearmongering by proxy.

Next time, Bachmann might want to consult with a good science adviser first. We would suggest Cookie Monster.


Blog with the Sun-Times editorial writers on BackTalk.

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