Asee peer logo

From "How Stuff Works" To "How Stuff Works": A Systems Approach To The Relationship Of Sts And "Technological Literacy"

Download Paper |


2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Defining Technological Literacy

Tagged Division

Technological Literacy Constituent Committee

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.652.1 - 11.652.10



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Kathryn Neeley University of Virginia

visit author page

Kathryn Neeley is a Virginia Engineering Foundation Faculty Fellow and an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. She is a former chair of the Liberal Education Division of ASEE.

visit author page

Download Paper |

NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

From “How Stuff Works” to “How STUFF Works”: A Systems Approach to the Relationship of STS and “Technological Literacy”

Its [sic] not so important to pick the right name, as to not pick the wrong name.

--Rajaneesh Narula, “A Short Guide to Baby Names,” The Astounding Importance of Triviality Accessed September 30, 2005

I have a reputation as a pain in the ass when starting a project. . . .I think naming projects is critical to their continued success.

--Andy Lester, “On the Importance of Names” February 15, 2004

I. Introduction

The opening sections of Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More about Technology (2002), a joint publication of the National Research Council and the National Academy of Engineering, make it clear that the initiative called “technological literacy” is concerned with a sophisticated and heterogeneous combination of “knowledge, ways of thinking, and capabilities” and focused on ambitious goals: “To take full advantage of the benefits and to recognize, address, and even avoid some of the pitfalls of technology. . . [to help citizens] become better stewards of technological change”.1

To borrow from the quote that begins this paper, it is unfortunate to see such a promising concept saddled with a name that gives so little insight into its character or potential—and that carries negative connotations and limitations that may undermine its chances for continuing success. Although Technically Speaking and many other publications concerned with technological literacy reveal well-formed intentions and sophisticated reasoning, it appears that the name was selected with little deliberation or reflection on its implications. This paper will argue that we need to stop now to rename the enterprise and to reflect on the numerous constituencies we will need to engage and system of heterogeneous elements we will need to bring together if we are to have an effective and productive interface between technical experts and those without technical expertise, both in academia and in the public sphere.

In particular, this paper (1) focuses on the complementary goals of science, technology, and society (STS) scholars and the advocates of technological literacy, (2) articulates the specific ways in which the term “literacy” is an inaccurate label for the enterprise, and (3) explores the obstacles to and prerequisites for building the interdisciplinary scholarly community required to achieve the goals of what we now term “technological literacy.” One of the key steps will be to realize that “how stuff works” (that is, how devices work and things are made) is only one— though obviously a key—component of understanding “how STUFF works” (that is, becoming “better stewards of technological change”).

Neeley, K. (2006, June), From "How Stuff Works" To "How Stuff Works": A Systems Approach To The Relationship Of Sts And "Technological Literacy" Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--243

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2006 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015