What does it mean to be scientifically literate? Defining this concept reminds me of a Supreme Court case in 1964 when Justice Potter Stewart was asked to explain why he felt the adult film involved in the trial lacked enough obscenity and should therefore be protected under free speech. In his response, he famously concluded, “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”1 Though a number of credible institutions, scientists, and authors have taken aim to define science literacy since the term was coined in 1958, it is likely that the majority of science teachers would align themselves with Justice Potter’s reasoning by claiming, “I know it when I see it, and that person is not scientifically literate.” However, unlike the court’s struggle to define what is obscene under U.S. law, those who understand science and routinely apply its practices can at least agree on a few of the most vital characteristics of being scientifically literate; even without a universal definition. Though we may recognize its presence, teachers, scientists, and policymakers still disagree on the most practical and effective methods for developing this skill in our students. Herein lies our challenge as science educators—what can we do in the classroom to create experiences for our students that involve the understanding and appreciation of the most valuable traits associated with being scientifically literate?
To offer potential solutions for this unique challenge, science educators should consider their ability to answer these three questions:
- What does it mean to be scientifically literate?
- What common knowledge, skills and traits does a scientifically literate person have?
- Why should anyone strive to be scientifically literate?
Go ahead and try it. If you really take the time to think about these questions, you will quickly realize the answers are not obvious. If you are like me, you constantly want to go back and change your answers after giving it more thought. Is it not a bit odd that even scientifically literate people, such as yourself, struggle to feel confident in generating meaningful answers to these questions?
The purpose of this article is to help science educators better understand the concept of science literacy that is at the very heart of how we navigate through our world. More specifically, my motivation for writing this is to help science educators with three things:
- Be more confident in answering those three pesky questions.
- Increase your ability to convince colleagues and students the importance of being scientifically literate.
- Develop an awareness of practical classroom activities that promote science literacy so that your own creativity can be utilized to design activities specific to your culture, experience, interests, and diversity of students.
If accomplishing those three goals can at least help get the ball rolling toward having meaningful conversations about developing science literacy in our students, then let’s do it.
What does it mean to be scientifically literate?
While a whole list of definitions could be given, I would like to provide one formal and one informal definition of science literacy which encompass what many of us likely think of when we attempt to explain this concept.
National Academy of Science2: Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.
Physicist Andrew Zwicker3: Scientific literacy is about looking at the world around you, taking in information…a bunch of facts…and seeing what type of conclusions you can draw as opposed to having a conclusion and looking for facts that fit the conclusion you already have.
What common knowledge, skills, and traits does a scientifically literate person have?
With working definitions in place, it would be useful to look at the most frequently mentioned characteristics associated with being scientifically literate. Such characteristics have been categorized under seven different dimensions that represent more of a theoretical framework in which scholars would expect to be useful or valuable.4
One of the most valuable takeaways I have from the list above is the role of content knowledge. Though it is important, it only represents a small fraction of the whole concept. And yet, if there is one thing the current state of science education appears to value and perpetuate more than anything, it is content knowledge. How hypocritical and ironic is it of me, as a science teacher trying to develop science literacy, to primarily focus on content knowledge as my benchmark for this skill set? In doing so, our students often leave our classrooms with the mindset that their scientific worth is based solely on their ability to recite scientific facts. However, our profession is slowly starting to move away from this mindset with the inclusion of frameworks such as NGSS and pedagogical approaches that value scientific practices like Modeling InstructionTM, POGIL, Problem-Based Learning (PBL), Argument-Driven Inquiry (ADI), Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER), and the inclusion of the seven science practices in AP.
Why should anyone strive to be scientifically literate?
As science teachers, we are used to selling ideas to our students. This is not a bad thing. We do it because of our passion for science and learning. After all, it is not an easy task to convince thirty 17-year-olds that they should be excited to perform titrations, learn about Atomic Theory, or investigate the properties of ionic and covalent bonds. However, it is incredibly important that we are capable of getting our students to understand the positive impact of being scientifically literate can have on the rest of their lives.
To make the justification a bit easier to comprehend, the National Acadamies Press has considered a wealth of information on science literacy to propose four broad rationales as to why science literacy is important and necessary: the economic rationale, the personal rationale, the democratic rationale, and the cultural rationale.4
What are some practical things we can do in the classroom that are intentionally designed to develop science literacy?
Today, teachers have unprecedented access to activities and ideas developed by others to help improve lessons on a variety of science topics. However, after spending hours sifting through the internet exploring journals, blogs, videos, and independent teacher websites, surprisingly few practical resources that would help teachers scaffold lessons on science literacy appear to exist. Nearly everyone seems to weigh in on the theoretical grounds for why science literacy matters but rarely do these same people offer meaningful experiences that we can implement in our classrooms to develop the very skills they deem so important. This is where I want to help change that.
One of the most inspirational and exciting ideas I came across was proposed by Diane Miller and Demetra Chengelis Czegan at Seton Hill University in their 2016 article published in the Journal of Chemical Education22. Their central theme was to develop a series of assignments that would provide both science and nonscience majors opportunities to engage with real-world issues while specifically targeting skills that are essential to science literacy. More precisely, the series of assignments would eventually “culminate with asking students to consider information on a current, controversial topic from a variety of resources and construct a rational and supported argument.” I was blown away by the simplicity and overall creativity of the assignments presented in their paper. While I cannot display their work, they provide copies of the assignments and grading rubrics in their supporting information and I highly encourage everyone to read their work. However, since their framework is incredibly adaptable, I have created an example assignment (below) that reflects their work.
**The list of resources and the assignment itself can be found below in the supporting information
Full disclosure: I thought of this scenario, found the necessary resources, and decided on a student product all within a span of 45 minutes. My point is that anyone can think of a potentially controversial argument, find creative ways for students to explore information on the subject, and suggest a student product that assesses their ability to utilize many of the skills involved in science literacy. In fact, this example assignment addresses content knowledge, understanding of scientific practices, identifying and judging scientific expertise, epistemic knowledge—four of the seven dimensions of science literacy. Not to mention it helps students develop their argumentative and writing skills.
While I could suggest other similar assignments, I would like to leave you with some resources that may help in the creation of quality instructional lessons on science literacy.
- Project 2061 (https://www.aaas.org/program/project2061): A long term research and development initiative focused on improving science education so that all Americans can become literate in science, mathematics, and technology. They provide a wealth of information such as science literacy concept maps, teaching guides for special topics in science, and professional development resources for science literacy.
- Literacy Tool (http://literacytool.com/): They provide a wonderful “Science Literacy Tool” that functions as an educational web-platform helping curious people discover, understand, and explore scientific contents. Some of the features that the Science Literacy Tool provides are pretty cool and it is totally free! This is driven by a small group of scientists and developers with a great passion for communicating their expertise and inciting new ideas.
- SciMathMN (http://www.scimathmn.org/stemtc/resources/science-best-practices/literacy-science): One of the things I loved most about this website is that it intentionally addresses planning and instruction of science literacy by offering some tips and examples.
I hope that this article helped provide you with new insights on the topic of science literacy and inspired you to create your own lessons on the topic. Personally, I have so much more to learn on the subject but I am already excited to start implementing activities that will help develop the skills that our students will undoubtedly benefit from for the rest of their lives and see the world through an entirely different lens.
If you have any ideas for promoting science literacy in the classroom, please share them! Thank you for reading this and feel free to comment or reach out to collaborate.
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22 Miller, A. D.; Chengelis Czegan, A. D. Integrating the Liberal Arts and Chemistry: A Series of General Chemistry Assignments to Develop Science Literacy. J. Chem. Educ. 2016, 93 (5), 864-869. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.5b00942