Where’s the “M” in STEM When it Comes to Social Issues?

September 22nd, 2014

This Building Informal Science Education (BISE) series blog post was co-written by Kris Morrissey and Anna Johnson. Kris Morrissey (morriss8@uw.edu) is Director of the Museology Graduate Program at University of Washington and founding editor of the journal Museums & Social Issues. Anna Johnson is the Portal to the Public Network Specialist at Pacific Science Center and recently completed a Master’s Thesis at the University of Washington on math attitudes and interest levels of adult participants in science center-sponsored science cafe events.

The National Science Foundation’s strategic vision calls on us to “build the capacity of the nation’s citizenry for addressing societal challenges,” and the Association of Science-Technology Centers encourages ISE institutions to “create new platforms where citizens and organizations work together to support evidence-based decision making about the global challenges facing our planet.” How are museums preparing their communities to address the challenges of our times? We used the BISE database of evaluation reports posted on InformalScience.org to explore the edges of this question.

Although there is a lack of consensus on terminology, we started with a definition of “social issues” as conditions where there are significant and evidence-based societal claims that the condition is harmful (Best, 2012); complex–where the solution is largely unknown; and where the solution is characterized by a lack of consensus or agreement (Heifitz, Kania and Kramer, 2004). Our article, available on the VSA website, further addresses what we found within the several dozen projects we identified: museums are addressing only a very limited number of social issues and a narrow scope of these issues, but when they do, the results are generally highly successful.

This blog post addresses a gap that we discovered—the absence of projects that address social issues that are grounded in a knowledge of and comfort with numbers and numerical data—the “M” in STEM. Understanding many of today’s most significant social issues requires numerical literacy—consider the budget deficit, climate change, unemployment, immigration policies, health practices, and education reform. Yet, we found no examples of museums attempting to address social issues that are grounded in math. While the BISE database is not comprehensive of all museum work, it is representative of what has been funded by NSF in the recent past and is, presumably, a glimpse of a reality in the field. The few examples of math-based projects we did find (including a few wonderful examples) addressed youth and primarily focused on fundamental knowledge of math or math in daily use, such as measuring quantities or handling money, but did not represent math as a fundamental part of the fabric of societal decisions. Particularly troubling is that, while many science museums are reaching out to adult audiences through unique and innovative formats, we did not find any examples of math-based projects that targeted adult audiences.

But, do adults need a stronger understanding of math to engage in society’s social issues? Our answer is a very strong and emphatic yes! Not only do many of today’s most complex problems require a conceptual understanding of numbers, but a recent international test suggests that many, if not most, American adults are not doing well in the basic skills that are “needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper” (OECD 2013a). The international Survey of Adult Skills measures fundamental adult skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The test, conducted in 33 countries, defines numeracy as “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life” (Goodman, Finnegan, Mohadjer, Krenzke, & Hogan, 2013, p. 2). Questions typically include a real-world context such as a computer screen or a short article from a newspaper and a set of questions that require comprehension or interpretation of the numerical information. You can see examples of questions used in the 2013 survey here.

Results of the test suggest that weak numeracy is more common in the U.S. than most of the other countries tested. Average scores ranged from a high of 288 (Japan) to a low of 246 (Spain), with the U.S. score of 253 close to the bottom and below adults in England, Korea, Canada, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Japan, and France. (See figure 1.) Unlike many other countries, there has been little sign of improvement in recent decades (OECD, 2013a). These weak skills occur at both the high end and the low end of U.S. scores, despite the United States’ relatively high level of education.

Skill levels are correlated with a number of social indicators, including health and employment of individuals, which are not only important to individuals but also “key drivers of economic growth and societal advancement” (OECD, 2013c). Furthermore, they appear to be indicators, if not predictors, of civic engagement and social equity issues. In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving were more likely than those with better skills to believe that they have little impact on political processes (OECD, 2013c). Sixty percent of low-skilled adults believe that “people like them” do not have a say in what the government does. The study found the link between socio-economic background and skills  “particularly troubling” in the U.S. Although the relationship is complex, socio-economic background has a stronger correlation with adult basic skills in the U.S. than in other countries (OECD, 2013c).

What does this data mean for museums and science centers? The good news for museums is that U.S. adults appear to be interested in continued opportunities for learning. Low-skilled adults in the U.S. were more likely than other countries to report having participated in some form of adult education or training in the past 12 months (OECD, 2013). The report articulates what museums often say, that “much of learning takes place outside of formal education,” and goes on to suggest that adult learning needs to be met through a mix of programs and community partnerships (OECD, 2013b, p. 15). Further supporting the potential for community partnerships, over one-third of the low-skilled adults in the U.S. have done voluntary work for charity or non-profit organizations over the past 12 months—again, higher than in any comparison country.

While ISE institutions have traditionally focused on and served family, school, and youth audiences, a number of initiatives reported within the BISE database and elsewhere highlight the focus on advancing STEM literacy of adults. Science cafes are increasingly becoming a staple program, particularly of large and urban science museums, and the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network provides many examples of successfully engaging adults in a range of strategic and creative program formats. Could these venues and programs more strategically and explicitly address math content? Could the “M” in STEM become a rallying point for engaging adults? We think so, and Anna’s recent masters thesis supports this potential. In a study of six science cafes sponsored by two Pacific Northwest museums, participants indicated a strong interest in hearing about applied math topics like math in the arts and math in public health (Johnson, 2014). Although science cafe attendees tend to have high levels of education and a strong motivation to learn, incorporating math-related topics for this existing audience may be a good first step towards engaging broad adult audiences in more mathematical content.

The OECD report describes the skills of literacy and numeracy as “lying at the root of our capacity to communicate and live and work together, to develop and share knowledge, science and culture.” We believe that not only is a basic understanding of math essential to understanding the complex social issues of our time, but our failings in numeracy is its own social issue in the U.S. Can museums play a role in boosting our nation’s performance in math? We suspect that the field is ripe for museums to play a significant role in changing the results of the next international assessment of adult competencies and to break the link between socio-economic levels and skills. We’d love to hear more about your projects or ideas that fall within the intersections of math, adults, and social issues—please post about them in the comments section below.


Best, J. (2012). Social Problems (2nd edition.). W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Goodman, M., Finnegan, R., Mohadjer, L., Krenzke, T., and Hogan, J. (2013). Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Among U.S. Adults: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012: First Look (NCES 2014-008). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved July 8, 2014 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.

Heifetz, R. A, Kania, J. V.  & Kramer, M.R. (2004) Leading boldly. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Stanford Graduate School of Business. Stanford, CA

Johnson, A. (2014). Math Attitudes and Interests of Adult Science Café Participants (Master’s Thesis

OECD (2013a), OECD skills outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing. DOI: 10.1787/9789264204256-en

OECD (2013b) Skilled for Life Key Findings from the Survey of Adult Skills OECD

OECD (2013c), Time for the U.S. to Reskill?: What the Survey of Adult Skills Says, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing. DOI: 10.1787/9789264204904-en