Frustrations Give Rise to New Push for Science Literacy

By Sean Cavanagh — February 29, 2008 6 min read
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Before they begin to study the atom, a topic of inquiry that dates as far back as ancient Greece, or delve into genetics, in the tradition of the famed breeder of pea plants Gregor Mendel, students today are often asked to consider a more fundamental scientific question: What is science?

The answer to that question is part of what is traditionally defined as “scientific literacy,” or the ability to understand science, its role in society, and make informed decisions as citizens, based on scientific evidence and knowledge.

Scientists and educators have long recognized the importance of that skill. Today, many of them are pressing to make sure that science literacy occupies a more central place in standards and curricula, as well as in textbooks and teaching materials.

That renewed interest has arisen partly out of scientists’ and teachers’ frustration at what they see as a lack of public understanding about the nature and purpose of science during state and local debates over evolution and other controversial topics.

Their commitment could be seen in new science standards approved in Florida this month, which for the first time explicitly refer to evolution, listing it as a “big idea,” central to students’ understanding, at various grade levels. Some religious advocates and others opposed the new language, arguing that the theory, which is almost universally accepted by scientists, should be described more critically in the document. (“Fla. Panel’s Evolution Vote Hailed,” Feb. 27, 2008.)

Yet another “big idea” listed at every grade level from kindergarten through 12th grade is “the practice of science,” which describes the processes scientists follow in setting up investigations, collecting data, and evaluating information scientifically.

While the previous Florida standards approved in 1996 included sections on the “nature of science,” the revised document also says students should know the “characteristics of scientific knowledge” or how scientists come to understand the natural world, based on empirical evidence.

“Being able to think scientifically in our modern world is tantamount to success,” said Bonnie P. Mizell, the science coach at Howard Middle School in Orlando, Fla., who served on a committee that helped draft the new standards. “Students who can’t think scientifically, based on evidence and data, rather than on emotion or belief, [are being sent] out into the world unprepared.”

Ms. Mizell says she encourages teachers to promote science literacy, even at early grades, by asking students to justify their answers in scientific terms. “How do you know?” they should ask.

A Long Tradition

Scientists have voiced disappointment in recent years over what they see as the public’s poor grasp of the rules of science, in light of public furors over how to teach evolution. In particular, they object to attempts to weaken evolution though suggestions that it is only a “theory” rather than a “fact.”

In everyday parlance, a theory is a hunch or an educated guess. But in science, a theory is an explanation that has been broadly tested and substantiated.

Debates over scientific literacy and the nature of science emerged in Kansas in 2005, when the state board of education adopted controversial standards describing evolution as being “accepted by many scientists but questioned by some.” The board also made a less-publicized change to the overall definition of science.

Over the objections of scientists, the board voted to remove language from the document’s introduction that defined science as seeking “natural explanations” for the world, and instead called it a discipline that promotes “continuing investigation” that seeks “more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”

Scientists saw the change as potentially opening the door to what they regard as nonscientific phenomena such as “intelligent design,” the idea that humans and other living things show signs of having been designed by an unnamed master architect, as opposed to having evolved.

Steven B. Case, a research assistant professor at the University of Kansas, co-chaired a committee of scientists and educators that drafted science standards that supported describing science as the study of natural explanations—a stance that was rejected by the state school board back then.

The committee’s explanation was meant partly to provide “a clear and coherent definition” of science for teachers, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels,Mr. Case said. Those educators are often at a disadvantage, he said, because they have little experience with research projects or extended experiments that forge a strong understanding of the goals and processes of science.

But board member Kathy Martin said confining science to the study of natural explanations amounted to “limiting science.” She voted in favor of the controversial 2005 standards with their “continuing investigation” language.

Scientists should “take data and go wherever it leads,” Ms. Martin said this week in an interview, on evolution and other issues, even if it upends established scientific thought.

Last year, a newly reconstituted Kansas board voted to do away with the 2005 standards, restoring evolution’s status and providing a definition of science that the scientific community found acceptable.

U.S. policymakers have a longstanding interest in promoting scientific literacy, which spiked after the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and resultant calls to raise mathematics and science achievement, recalled Jo Ellen Roseman, the director of Project 2061, an undertaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington, to promote science literacy.

15-Year-Olds’ PISA Scores


Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2006

The AAAS later sought to define those skills through the publication of Science for All Americans, in 1989, which sought to define adult science literacy, and, four years later, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, a set of voluntary national science standards for what students should know in science. The National Research Council published its own student standards in 1996. The latter two documents have been widely used by many states in defining what students should know in science—and about the study of the subject overall.

By one measure, U.S. students’ science literacy today falls short of the norm. American 15-year-olds ranked behind 16 of 30 industrialized nations in science literacy on the 2006 results for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

Adult Literacy

In contrast to U.S. teenagers, American adults show relatively strong science literacy, according to research by Jon D. Miller, a professor of integrative studies at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who has spent years studying that issue.

Adult 'Civic Science' Scores


Source: Jon D. Miller, 2005

Mr. Miller measured “civic science literacy,” as having the basic vocabulary and knowledge necessary to function as a citizen in a modern, industrialized society. A scientifically literate person, by this measure, would be able to understand stories about science in a mainstream newspaper or magazine.

Adult Americans’ science literacy, unlike that of students, has improved steadily over the past two decades, Mr. Miller’s research shows. Adults in the United States, moreover, ranked second, behind only Sweden, out of 34 countries in science literacy.

Mr. Miller sees a number of factors at work. American colleges and universities tend to require more science coursework, even of nonscience majors, than European or Asian institutions do. And over the past 50 years, opportunities for informal science learning for U.S. citizens of all ages and backgrounds have steadily increased through museums, zoos, aquariums, and other means.

Even so, the middling science literacy of high school students is troubling, Mr. Miller said. Science’s role in medicine and other areas of society will grow in the coming years, and students will need stronger skills to make sense of those issues, he said.

“It’s clear that we will be a more scientific and technical society than we are right now,” Mr. Miller said. “Because we can’t teach people what the science is going to be 20 years from now, we can teach them the building blocks.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Frustrations Give Rise to New Push for Science Literacy


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