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Science is outside the lab and part of everyone’s life, so having a decent level of science literacy matters. Maureen Munn, a University of Washington scientist, has made science literacy her business for the past 20 years.

She works to improve science education for students before they reach college, because the younger the age at which the interest takes hold, the better.

Munn and her UW colleagues are the latest winners of the Science (magazine) Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. Tomorrow Science will publish an article co-authored by Munn, Hiroki Oura, Mark Gallivan, Katie Van Horne and Andrew W. Shouse on the database course module that earned the award. The American Association for the Advancement of Science publishes the magazine.

There are a couple of obvious reasons for a research institution like the UW to want more people engaged with science. Growing future science students is one. The other is money.

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Research is funded by tax dollars, so an electorate with a better understanding of science and, even better, a commitment to the importance of research, is critical to all those campus labs.

Scientific literacy is a personal benefit, too, Munn said. Most of us, if we think about it, can find lots of examples in which navigating the world requires some understanding of science, from making health decisions to picking out a light bulb.

Get the basic ideas and learn how the process works, and you can apply that knowledge when

a science-related issue is up for public debate or you have to figure out what to eat in the midst of contradictory reports.

That’s why it’s important to involve students in more sophisticated scientific work before college, which is what Munn does as director of education outreach in the UW’s Department of Genome Sciences. Put down the textbook and pick up a lab coat.

What that looks like is different in every science, but being hands on in some way is important. Munn, who has a doctorate in molecular biology, credits her parents for getting her and her brothers out of the city every summer to places where they could observe nature and interact with it.

Munn designs projects with multiple learning opportunities, mostly for high-school students, and she trains science teachers how to use the modules.

In one project, students investigated why some people who experiment with smoking become regular smokers and others don’t.

They had to design questionnaires and, in the process, learn how to be sensitive to a subject’s feelings, how to be impartial and nonjudgmental.

They learned how to design a study to look back in time and tease out which factors were more common either to smokers or nonsmokers.

Munn said she also chose that particular question because at that age students or their peers might be considering smoking and therefore might be more interested in the topic. They were.

The results from that study, including blood samples taken at the UW, were the smoking-behavior database, which other students used in a second project.

Munn got funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse for the first project and from the National Science Foundation for the second.

She said she’s concerned that the president and Congress are now wrestling over funding cuts to agencies that fund many science-education programs.

Her science modules are used by public and private schools in and around Seattle, and even in other parts of the state and country.

She’s trained teachers from outside the country, too. And she wants to keep doing that.

Munn said Seattle is fortunate to have many organizations that work to engage children with nature and the sciences. That’s true. If you have children, make sure they take advantage of those opportunities.

Science has always been part of daily life; we just didn’t think so much about it until recently.

But as our scientific capabilities get ever more complex, people will have to study harder to keep up and harder still to participate in scientific enterprises.

The best place to start, though, is still the same: a kid getting her hands dirty.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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