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What does science literacy look like?

Imagine a student ten years after college graduation: what would it mean for that student to be scientifically literate? In our view, scientifically literate students have a set of basic skills that allow them to:

  • Access the scientific information they need when confronting a real-world problem or question.

  • Critique claims that utilize scientific evidence and, in particular, to reconcile conflicting claims about scientific evidence,

  • Understand human factors that influence the creation, interpretation, and communication of scientific evidence; and

  • Integrate thinking scientifically about a question with knowledge from other fields.

This definition is heavily influenced by Noah Feinstein’s development of the “competent outsider” model of science literacy. In Feinstein’s view, a competent outsider to science is someone who can develop satisfying, accurate, actionable answers to the science-related questions emerging from their lives.

Outside the Pipeline: Reimagining Science Education for Non-Scientists

Feinstein et al. 2013

The authors lay out a definition of science literacy with foundations in public engagement in science, supported by evidence about how people actually use science in their everyday lives.

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Salvaging Science Literacy

Feinstein 2011

Feinstein argues that there is little evidence that efforts to improve science literacy have an impact on people’s lives, and presents a model of how to educate students as competent outsiders to science, rather than marginal insiders.

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Like Feinstein’s approach, ours is founded on lifelong utility: we take seriously the fact that our students—including many non-majors who take only one science course in college—will one day encounter scientifically-informed problems later in life. What should we teach them? We were further drawn to his work because, unlike most approaches to science literacy, his is informed by data on how adults actually use science in their lives. We made the decision that an evidence-based approach to science literacy was fundamental.

There are other serious approaches to the question of science literacy at the college level:

Civic Scientific Literacy

Miller 2012

Jon Miller has been testing Americans’ understanding of science since 1988, using a 12-question quiz that focuses on basic understanding of fundamental science content such as “True or False: Lasers work by focusing sound waves.”

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Science Literacy at Oberlin College

Steyer et al. 1998

A group of faculty at Oberlin have summarized a wide range of justifications for teaching science to students outside the STEM majors, including the ideas that science is a foundation for problem-solving, and that science is intrinsically valuable.

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Science for All in a Core Curriculum: Frontiers of Science at Columbia University

Kelley 2010

At Columbia University, all first-year students attend lectures by distinguished scientists who tell them about the most exciting ideas at the forefront of particular STEM fields, and attend discussion sections to reinforce these ideas.

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Why should you be scientifically literate?

Hazen 2002

Robert Hazen argues that the goal of college education in the sciences is for students to finally grasp a core set of the most important scientific concepts, for which he and James Trefil provide a college textbook.

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On the face of it, these definitions of science literacy all look quite similar. At an early moment in our work, we decided that our choice of a definition had to be founded on real evidence about whether and how knowledge of science makes a difference in people’s lives. We also realized that even the perfect definition wouldn’t help our students achieve science literacy if it wasn’t taught appropriately.

Questions we asked ourselves:

  • On what basis have the authors chosen their definition of science literacy?
  • What is their pedagogical approach and is it the approach best suited for fostering their students’ ability to achieve their goals?
  • How do they measure whether they have achieved their goals?
  • Does the information they gather from assessment feed back into their approach to teaching and learning?