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Engaging with science and technology at the library

Eileen Harrington, University of Maryland Libraries | July 23, 2019

Teaching and Visualization Lab at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University

Photo Credit: NCSU Libraries



A deadly disease once considered eradicated in the U.S. has reemerged.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 1,123 cases of the measles in 28 states between January 1 and July 11, 2019 —the highest number recorded since 1992 (CDC, 2019). In June, while fans excitedly watched premier athletes compete in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, France reached its all-time highest temperature, 45.9°C (Henley, Chrisafis, & Jones, 2019). At the same time, in the US many remained anxious as the hurricane and wildfire seasons loomed, fearing more deadly natural disasters after formidable 2018 seasons. The United Nations recently released a report stating that 1 million species worldwide (about one in four plants or animals) face extinction over the next few decades unless immediate action is taken to reverse this trend (United Nations, 2019). Almost daily reports emerge about another data breach, demonstrating the fragility of the technology upon which we all rely.


As these snippets demonstrate, science and technology pervade our lives. Even those who claim no interest in it cannot deny that at least a minimum level of science and digital literacy is necessary to navigate today’s world. While a recent survey on science facts showed that American adults answered more questions correctly than incorrectly, only 39 percent had “high science knowledge” and only 32 percent  had “medium science knowledge” (Kennedy & Hefferon, 2019). The same survey showed discrepancies based on gender and race, with men scoring higher than women, and whites scoring hiring than African Americans and Hispanics. Other studies on science literacy have found similar results (Funk & Goo, 2015; National Science Board, 2016).


Knowledge of basic scientific facts, however, does not represent the whole story. Politics, religion, emotions and levels of trust often come into play when people make decisions related to environmental issues or health concerns, as shown in the current outbreak of measles cases (Hamblin, 2019; Nisbet & Markowitz, 2016). Also, in a 2016 survey, 93 percent of Democrats with a high level of science knowledge correlated climate change mostly with human activity, while only 49 percent of Democrats with low science knowledge did. Among Republicans, however, those with a high level of science literacy were not more likely than those with a low level to say that climate change is mostly due to human activity (Funk & Kennedy, 2016).


In addition to scientifically literate citizens, however, the US also needs a more diverse and larger STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce to meet the various environmental, health-related and technological challenges we face. Many young people, however, are not pursing STEM degrees. Also, of those who start out in STEM majors, many, particularly women and minorities, switch to other fields, often due to social and institutional barriers. In the 2015-16 academic year, of all STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded at postsecondary institutions in the US, 64 percent went to males and 36 percent went to females, even as females earned more bachelor’s degrees overall (58 percent vs. 42 percent). In this same year, African Americans earned 12 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, Hispanics earned 15 percent, and whites earned 18 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019).


Many financial and human resources have been put into educational programs and science communication initiatives to help foster science literacy and increase interest in STEM fields, particularly among underrepresented groups. Organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science strive to translate science research for a general audience. Since throughout their lives, people spend more time outside of school than in it, informal educational arenas, such as museums, zoos and national parks have become important sources for science learning. Libraries can also fall into this category.


People often refer to academic libraries as the “heart of the campus.” They bring people from all disciplines together to access, share and create knowledge. Many US academic libraries also exist within land-grant institutions, which have missions to give back to the citizens of the state through their research and workforce development initiatives. For universities and colleges that are not part of the land-grant system, many still include community engagement as part of their missions and strategic goals. Researchers on all campuses often have requirements as part of the grants they receive to demonstrate the broader impacts of their research. This can entail engaging with the public, something that scientists might be reluctant to do because of time constraints or lack of confidence around effectively communicating about their science to a lay audience.


My recent book, Academic Libraries and Public Engagement With Science and Technology (2019) from the Chandos Information Professional Series, highlights ways that academic libraries can get both on-campus and off-campus populations excited about STEM, provide a forum for researchers to share their science, and support retention in STEM majors. After an introduction to the status of science literacy and STEM education in the US and an overview of science communication theories, the book contains chapters on different ways libraries can connect people to STEM, including through makerspaces, workshops, classes, science-related events, citizen science, data services, and the open science movement. Each chapter includes background information and case studies of initiatives at various institutions. Libraries might not immediately come to mind as a place for public engagement with science and technology, but hopefully this will change as more and more people realize the potential of libraries and librarians to play a pivotal role in this arena.



Library Connect is pleased to offer our readers an exclusive look at the author's book by providing a PDF of Chapter 1 – Introduction that gives a more in-depth overview of science literacy in the US, issues around retention in STEM fields, pubic engagement with science research, and the roles that academic libraries can play in this arena.


Download the chapter




CDC. (2019). Measles cases and outbreaks. Retrieved from:


Funk, C., & Goo, S. K. (2015). A look at what the public knows and does not know about science. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from:


Funk, C., & Kennedy, B. (2016). The politics of climate. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from:


Hamblin, J. (2019, April 26). Measles and the limits of facts. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:


Henley, J., Chrisafis, A., & Jones, S. (2019, June 28). France records all-time highest temperature of 45.9C. The Guardian. Retrieved from


Kennedy, B., & Hefferon, M. (2019). What Americans know about science. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from:


National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups, Indicator 26: STEM degrees. Retrieved from:


National Science Board. (2016). Science and engineering indicators 2016 (No. NSB-2016-1). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation. Retrieved from:


Nisbet, M. C., & Markowitz, E. (2016). American’s attitudes about science and technology: The social context for public communication. Washington, DC: AAAS Center for Public Engagement With Science & Technology. Retrieved from:


United Nations. (2019, May 6). World is ‘on notice’ as major UN report shows one million species face extinction. Retrieved from:




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