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cultivating science literacy

A resource for colleges and universities


What should all students know about science by the time they graduate from college? A great deal of attention has been paid to the training of future scientists, but the education of students who will not pursue the study of science is an equally important challenge. These students might take just a single science course in college. What do we as a society think they should know or be able to do?

Some have argued that students who are scientifically literate should command a basic set of facts. For example, perhaps everyone should know what DNA is, how the movement of the earth around the sun affects the seasons, and how natural selection drives evolution. Others argue that it’s more important for students to develop a sense of wonder and awe about the natural world and a sense of how we come to understand how it works through the scientific process. Still others argue that students should leave college with a greater appreciation for science so that science is something they feel they can understand and incorporate into their future lives. 

Our answer stresses the ways people actually use science in their everyday lives: we argue that a college education should equip students to engage meaningfully with science over the course of a lifetime. To achieve this goal, undergraduates must develop a toolkit of useful skills and concepts, and they must have repeated opportunities to practice applying them in real-world situations.

What ways of understanding science actually make a difference in people’s lives?

A quick survey of the literature on adult science literacy reveals many opinions, but very little evidence supporting them.

"It is troubling that science education, as a field, has been so willing to assert that science literacy is useful and so unconcerned with evidence about its usefulness."


Noah Feinstein 2011

We have committed to using the best possible evidence for how scientific knowledge affects people’s lives.

The structure of this website reflects the results of our investigation into how best to approach science literacy for college students. In our view, an approach to science literacy needs to include three distinct yet equally important perspectives: a definition that characterizes literacy, an assessment task that measures literacy, and an approach to teaching that fosters literacy.

The place to begin is with a definition of science literacy. We have provided ours here, as well as links to others. The definition you choose provides the foundation for the pedagogical approaches you must employ – what approaches to student learning are most effective in reaching your goals? The careful use of assessment provides you with feedback for revisiting both your definition and your pedagogy. This process is ongoing and requires engaged reflection.

On this website, we have provided information about how we have worked through this process, as well as resources to help you pursue your own investigation and create your own definition, pedagogy, and assessment.