Science Literacy

I have been reading a book (review forthcoming) and it has me thinking a lot about what “scientific literacy” means, and how we as science teachers can teach guide our students to become more scientifically literate. In particular, I have been thinking about the context of my conceptual chemistry class, which is designed for students who need to complete their required full-year science course after 10th grade biology. Many of these students are not looking to go to college, and chances are this will be the last science class they ever take. I have dedicated a lot of thinking time to how I can better prepare them to be citizen scientists; using their scientific literacy productively in their lives outside of the classroom (and hopefully continuing to use it into the future).

There are two questions in particular that I have been pondering, and I was hoping to get some feedback from some other science teachers:

1. What does science literacy look like?

My initial thoughts:

  • Being familiar with scientific experiments; their design, drawing conclusions, interpreting data, etc.
  • Understanding the relationship between science and our society
  • Approaching things with a skeptical mindset (especially the “too-good-to-be-true”), BUT ALSO
  • Being open-minded to new ideas that have sufficient supporting evidence
  • Being critical of the source and reliability of information (especially related to science)
  • Understand that there is not always a “right” answer, but that science is always seeking the best answer possible

2. What do citizen scientists do? 

  • Evaluate scientific information and sources
  • Review evidence for scientific claims, especially ones that challenge their status quo
  • Make informed  scientific decisions (everything from food to politics)
  • Interpret scientific data and evaluate others’ conclusions about the same data

What do you think? What else should be added to these lists? Any thoughts in the comments are greatly appreciated.


6 thoughts on “Science Literacy”

  1. JO- First of all, I would love to be back working with you again. I struggle with this topic as well:like we’ve discussed while at our “other” district. Couple of thoughts:
    1. Understanding the scientific process and setting up a controlled experiment and the ability to recognize an experiment that lacks the proper controls would be paramount in my opinion. This doesn’t need to be in the formal IV, DV, Control and Constant setup, but on a conceptual level.
    2. The ability to have a firm background in the concepts of science from which to build new knowledge. There needs to be some sort of schema for them to reject or accept new ideas and a fundamental understanding of the big ideas of chem, physics, ES, etc is probably necessary for that to develop.

    Congrats on the new addition and keep up the good work.

    1. Erik – great to hear from you! Hope all is well up in St. Cloud!
      #1: Fantastic. This is exactly what I had in mind when I said “experimental design”. Any ideas on how to approach helping students learn about experimental design without getting bogged down the formalities? I’ve found that my students’ ability is widely varied for thinking critically about experimental design. Some mostly get it naturally, some have no clue.
      #2: Absolutely, I will definitely be adding this to the list! I also think that the idea of fundamental understanding can be a point of contention among science teachers, as everyone has a slightly different viewpoint on what is essential vs. not essential. I’ve tried to think through some of this for chem, I wrote about it post last summer ( Definitely still a work in progress, and I will surely be making some changes to it in the near future.

      1. I suck at #1. What I’ve tried and liked so far:
        1. Simple design. Here are some materials and create a controlled experiment. With very little direction but an opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other, all but 5 students created a controlled experiment. Those 5 students manipulated two variables. Doesn’t have to be Chem related. Mine had nothing to do with Earth Sci.
        2. Predict, Observe, Explain Sequences:
        3. What I am going to try next year: What’s wrong with this experiment. Sometimes it’s easier to say what is wrong than to know what is right. I think this is a good starting point for my 8th graders.

        As for #2, I enjoyed your post on the essentials for chemistry and I agree that there is difficulty in deciding what is important. Do we need a consensus or can the same concepts be taught with a different focus? I had one teacher that related everything in General Chem to Coulomb’s Law and something else that I don’t remember. It worked for me, but then again I already had a fundamental understanding of chemistry.

  2. I think the list looks strong so far!

    Here’s one of my faves from Mark Guzdial, a computer science ed researcher: The Scientific Method is Wrong.

    Also, Jason Buell’s whole series about the “Claim-Evidence-Reasoning” framework was really helpful in figuring out my own ideas about this.

    A few other things I’ve been thinking about lately:
    – distinguish between facts (right or wrong), opinions (can’t be right or wrong) and judgment calls (better or worse, depending on quality of evidence and reasoning)
    – recognize that science (especially scientific “theory”)is always about judgment call, never about “truth” (do you think I’m going too far here?)
    – assess whether a conclusion follows from a set of premises
    – distinguish between what we know for sure does not happen, vs. what we don’t know
    – recognize and counter-balance our natural tendency to reach self-interested conclusions

    I’m borrowing heavily from the Foundation for Critical Thinking, which publishes the shortest and most useful reference on thinking well that I have found.

    1. As always, Mylene, you offer a number of great ideas and resources! Thanks! My mind is already buzzing about the first link you posted, and how it impacts students (thinking of each student as constantly testing their own individual mental models; having them think more specifically about what their models look like and how they can constructively accept changes, etc.). I have also read through Jason’s CER framework, but I have not really had much time to process and think about how to incorporate them into my classroom effectively. I also have a few of your posts queued up to help with that as well when I find the time!
      I think the idea of science being a judgement call is a much better way of thinking about my last point that I was trying to make under the literacy heading above. The idea that science doesn’t find the “right” answer but rather is trying to find the “best answer possible” is tough, and trying to impress that idea upon students who have been conditioned through many experiences (not the least of which the format of their science classes) to view science as knowing what’s right vs. wrong is no easy feat.

      1. I know what you mean about the view of science as “right and wrong.” This hasn’t worked out especially well in my class this year; as you say, it’s a long journey from “science is about right and wrong” to “there may be more than one answer that is supported by the evidence — our judgement comes in when deciding which one is most supported, or sometimes recognizing that no one answer has a clear lead.”

        When my students leave the land of “right or wrong,” they often seem to end up in the land of “there is no right and wrong, everything is relative, I have a right to my own opinion, no matter how contrary to the observed evidence.” Also not helpful. The Foundation for Critical Thinking is where I got the idea to abandon “facts vs. opinions” in favour of “facts vs. opinions vs. judgment calls.” I’m not sure my students have made much sense of it, but it has at least helped me figure out what I mean.

        Thought you might find something useful at Math is a Shovel, especially the post about Using measurement uncertainty to help students see slightly different numerical results as equivalent.

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