Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush.
Question: What is the standard for scientific literacy
Vest: I think that all young people graduating from, say, high school certainly need to understand the basic elements of mathematics certainly through algebra; hopefully a bit beyond that understand to some extent how it can be used to model the real world. They need to understand – and this is a critical issue today – they need to understand what science is; that it is a way of drawing on hundreds of years of human intelligence being applied to measuring things; to understanding what objective data are; and to take facts and put them together and build them into theories; into understanding how things work; and then how that can be taken through the field of engineering to designing and building things that extend our capabilities and enable us to do our jobs. So they need to be able to quantitatively reason. They need to understand what science is and what the scientific method is. They need to understand that without . . . without that scientific and mathematical underpinning you cannot build big structures. You cannot run industries. You cannot have your health improve. It’s really those basics that I think our young people need to know, because believe me if you go to China, and Singapore, and parts of India and so forth, you’ll find a lot of kids going very quickly; fire in the belly in these fields, and ultimately wanting to eat our lunch. We can’t let them do that. We have to both compete and cooperate. But our young people need to have the opportunities that the new age is going to provide them. Recorded on: 12/5/07