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Will Cosmos’ Success Inspire Science and Sustainability Education?

Ann Druyan and Neil deGrasse Tyson
Caption: Ann Druyan, COSMOS Executive Producer (and Carl Sagan's widow), and astrophysicist host Neil deGrasse Tyson
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What's out of this world and received 12 Emmy award nominations? Well, COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY, of course!

The now-completed first season of this popular 13-part series is both a tribute to Carl Sagan's classic original – and a much-needed 30+ year update. When the premier episode gathered 8.5 million viewers nationally and total audience of 40 million viewers worldwide, it was clear the "Ship of the Imagination" had a successful re-launch.

Science author and journalist Chris Mooney explains how COSMOS made television history: "According to National Geographic, it was the largest global rollout of a TV series ever, appearing on 220 channels in 181 countries and 45 languages"—and how it is making science cool again: "And, yes, this is a science show we're talking about. You will have to actively resist the force of gravity in order to lift up your dropped jaw and restore a sense of calm to your stunned face."

At the center of the show is the "heir apparent" to legendary science popularizer and original Cosmos host Carl Sagan: the impassioned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who appeared on this week's episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast to talk about what it's like to fill Sagan's shoes…. On the podcast, Tyson discussed topics ranging from what we know now about the cosmos that Sagan didn't (top three answers: dark matter and dark energy, the profusion of discovered exoplanets, and the concept of parallel universes, or the "multiverse") to why science seems to have gotten so supercool again. After all, not only has Cosmos garnered such a reach, but The Big Bang Theory is currently the No. 1 comedy on TV.

"I wake up every morning saying, 'How did I get 1.7 million Twitter followers?'" Tyson joked while discussing science's newfound popularity. "Should I remind them that I'm an astrophysicist? Maybe I should tell them, 'Folks, I'm an astrophysicist. All right? Escape now.'"

We can only hope that all this public interest will spur science – and sustainability – education in America. We have some catching up to do globally in both departments.

Why have we let ourselves fall behind? And—more importantly—what can we do to address the situation? According to EDUCAUSE,

The global competitiveness environment has indeed changed dramatically during the past decade. As the smoke from the Internet boom cleared, Americans began to notice that other countries had made tremendous gains in science and technology, dramatically narrowing America's historic lead. China has pulled ahead of the United States in high-technology exports, and U.S. trade in advanced technology has fallen into deficit. The European Union now generates more scientific publications and graduates more PhDs in science than the United States. China graduates nearly three times as many four-year degrees in engineering, computer science, and IT and is projected to graduate more PhDs in science and engineering by 2010.

EDUCAUSE concludes: "We should … be asking how research can drive regional and national competitiveness, what skills students need to contribute to innovation and, ultimately, how higher education can support American competitiveness." What skills indeed… studies consistently show that America needs more hands-on training for science, technology, and sustainability—the very kind of training America's first Ecotech Institute offers.

What is holding us back? A number of things, but in my opinion, foremost among them is widespread anti-science mindset and politicized science. As Scientific American blogger Clara Moskowitz relates, "We live in an age where a quarter of the American public thinks the sun orbits Earth, and only three in 10 Americans say that 'dealing with global warming' should be a priority for the president and Congress."
Science is not a belief system, nor is it partisan. We need to understand the difference between "what is" (objective, evidence-based scientific investigation), "what we believe about things science can neither prove nor disprove" (religion, philosophy), and "what we should do" (politics and the subjective application of science and technology).

New science idol Neil deGrasse Tyson has his work cut out for him… but he's not alone. How about we "roll up our sleeves," put politics aside, and do our part for hands-on science and sustainability education?

Kyle G. Crider (MPA, LEED AP ND) is a professional science and sustainability "story teller." In his spare time he is pursuing his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary (Environmental Health) Engineering and traveling the highways and by-ways of home state with his wife Beverly in search of fact, fiction, and folklore for Strange Alabama.