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.
As I mentioned in my last post, I have been working through Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design in order to gain a better understanding of using a backwards design process. Part of the process has been brainstorming “big ideas” that I think are at the core of chemistry1, and I came up with 5 of them. The list below has them from the “biggest” ideas down to the “less big” ideas.
1) Nature of Science
I think it stands to reason that general science skillz (designing and performing experiments, collecting and interpreting data, drawing and presenting scientific conclusions, etc.) which are fundamental and continuous through all science disciplines is the biggest of the ideas covered in a chemistry course.
2) Particle Nature of Matter
One thing that I’ve though for a long time (and that fits perfectly with the Modeling Chemistry curriculum!) is that students need to have a basic understanding of the evidence and reasoning for how we know that matter is made of discrete particles and not continuous before you can move on to deeper chemistry topics. Too often traditional chemistry courses (not to mention earlier science courses) jump right in to talking about atoms as fundamental building blocks, but take for granted the justification for how we know atoms exist. The icing on the cake here is the fact that this piece of chemistry/physical science is fraught with common misconceptions2 (see section 4d).
Quick note: these next three ideas have approximately the same “biggishness” in the scope of a chemistry course, representing some of the fundamentals of chemistry-specific content.
3) Chemical Reactions Conservation of Mass (and Energy?)
I’ve struggled a bit with this one. I think there is a tendency to focus more on chemical reactions (types of rxns, stoichiometry, balancing, etc.), but conservation of mass encompasses all of that PLUS it also includes physical changes, which is crucial for a thorough understanding of chemistry. However, you could also make the argument that physical changes are already included in the particle nature of matter… although not necessarily from a conservation standpoint.
Chemistry is all about atoms – periodic trends and atomic structure are two big components but it could also include nuclear chemistry as well (if you’re into that).
Material properties are all about the different types of bonding. The obvious topics here are ionic and covalent (and metallic) bonds, but there’s also polarity/miscibility, intermolecular forces, and solubility.
What am I missing? Any thoughts or feedback would be much appreciated!
 These big ideas also (conveniently) happen to align with our state/district standards, which I am also trying to more efficiently and effectively disseminate into specific learning objectives and assessment tasks – a post for later!
 For my masters program, I am doing action research this fall into how effective certain teaching methods are in addressing students’ misconceptions. More to come on that later!