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Project Background

This project was supported by a generous grant to Bard College from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Our goal was to develop and implement a plan for science literacy for undergraduates. We imagined a student who takes just one science course during four years of college education:

  • What, we asked, is it essential that this student learn about the sciences?
  • What would a student who we deemed to be “science literate” be able to do?


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In pursuing an answer, we decided that our approach would be grounded in the best available evidence. We were drawn to the work of Noah Feinstein (University of Wisconsin), who has been one of the most innovative thinkers asking what science literacy means and how to achieve it. Drawing on the literature on public engagement with science, Feinstein has identified a suite of characteristics shared by non-scientists who are able to navigate the world of science while remaining outsiders to it. What do these people know? What skills and knowledge do these people have? Feinstein has detailed his findings in several important papers, most notably here.

Over the four years of the project, an ever-expanding team of Bard faculty worked to articulate our vision of what every college graduate should know about science, using Feinstein’s evidence as the basis for our discussions. Our explorations involved many, many conversations. We talked over lunches, dinners, tea and cookies, through whole afternoons and, not infrequently, entire weekends. We worked, debated, and dined together more than we ever had. In the first two years, our goal was to develop a new definition of science literacy, but we soon discovered that this topic frequently led to discussions of assessment and pedagogy as well. We began to feel, in a deep and profound way, the intricate connections between our goals, our approaches in the classroom, and our ways of measuring student learning. As our understanding of these three areas grew, so too did our understanding of the ways they might work together to inform and enrich our actual work with students.


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Early in the process, we were tempted to out-source whatever seemed most intimidating. We would have gladly paid someone to develop an assessment instrument for us, for example. But with the gentle support of some helpful mentors, we gradually realized that it was the process itself that was valuable: our understanding, and our collective resolve to re-think both what and how we were teaching, emerged directly from the many hours of shared debate, conversation, and imagining. For that reason, while we share the fruits of the last four years on this website, the heart of what we hope to offer can be found not in any particular product or document that we developed but, rather, in the method that led to their creation.

We hope our work is useful to you. It has been transformative for us.