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How do we foster science literacy?

Because our definition emphasizes skills students will need at some future points in their lives, our pedagogy emphasizes hands-on, realistic problem-solving situations. We also emphasize repeated practice, which provides the opportunity for improvement and transfer.

We cannot prepare students for every situation, but we can give them repeated opportunities to:

  • Respond to real-world problems,

  • Explore solutions to problems about which there is conflicting scientific evidence,

  • Practice transferring their skills and knowledge from one context to another.

In cases where students take just one science course, such as to fulfill a college distribution requirement, that course should include all three of these components.

A fundamental premise of our approach is that formal science education constitutes only a small fraction of most people’s lives, so that most of what they learn in school will need to be transferred to new situations. For this reason, we cannot overstate the importance of giving students time and opportunities to practice the active transfer of what they are learning in the classroom. We assume that students who have experience practicing the transfer of skills and knowledge from one context to another will be better able to repeat this challenge outside the boundaries of the classroom.

Science education constitutes only a small fraction of most people’s lives


Transfer is a challenging concept to explore, but we are convinced that any serious approach to teaching science to non-majors must grapple with this aspect of learning. Here, we provide a selection of foundational and practical readings about transfer.

Teaching for Transfer

Perkins & Salomon 1988

In this classic paper, the authors argue convincingly that transfer is an essential element of education and that achieving it requires explicit design of instruction and assessment, focusing on the practices of “hugging” and “bridging”.

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Teaching basic science to optimize transfer

Norman 2009

Specifically addressing transfer in science courses, the author explores how limited transfer actually is, and why, but argues that explicit instruction can improve transfer.

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The Transfer of Learning

Leberman et al. 2005

In this broad overview, the authors outline major ideas about the transfer of learning and provide a toolkit of foundational concepts, including near versus far transfer, and automatic versus mindful transfer.

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Transfer Talk—Tips on Teaching for Transfer

University of Delaware Social Studies Education Project

This very useful website provides succinct and practical tips for how to teach to help your students achieve transfer.

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Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century (2012)

National Academy of Sciences 2012

This thorough report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences highlights the importance of “deeper learning” in 21st century education and the central role that transfer plays in this learning, with a specific chapter on teaching and assessing transfer. Free download with registration.

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"'Making science relevant' should not be something that the teacher does alone, but rather something that students learn to do, becoming progressively better at it through concerted practice."

— Noah Feinstein, Salvaging Science Literacy, 2011


Beyond transfer, the issue of pedagogy is crucial. If your goal is for students to be able to DO something, then the pedagogy must include repeated practice actually doing that thing! No matter how good your definition is, if you’re just going to lecture at them, you are almost certainly not achieving your goals. 

– Phil Pardi, Bard College

More generally, it seems clear to us that the approach to teaching science to non-majors has elements that are—or should be—distinct from traditional approaches to teaching majors. Here, we provide links to resources for some key elements of teaching science to these students:

Vision Learning

The real prize in this wide-ranging website, which features online readings and simple quizzes on topics from many scientific disciplines, is the section on the Process of Science, which covers important topics for non-scientists such as Ethics in Science and Scientific Institutions that are rarely addressed elsewhere.

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Case Studies from AAC&U

These excellent case studies place science within particularly large contexts, focusing, for example, on debating tar sands oil transmission, whether autism is linked to vaccines, and whether doping by athletes should be legal. Student and instructor resources are provided for free.

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National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science

This website provides a wide range of polished case studies for STEM fields, with some of the most appropriate for non-majors including “The Last Spruce Grove” and “Kermit to Kermette” because of their authentic focus on real-world situations. Access to instructor keys requires a paid subscription, but student materials are useful on their own.

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Role-playing with the "Sleeping Mountain Scenario"

This activity, developed for an introductory geology course, provides an excellent example of how role-playing can provide students with opportunities to connect the science they’re learning to a real world situation with no easy answers, and stakeholders whose points of view range far beyond science.

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Tutorial on the life cycle of scientific information

Through quiz questions, simple activities, and short online readings, this web tutorial provides an overview of how science is done, with a focus on sources of scientific information, including an explanation of gray literature, and differences between book chapters and primary papers.

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Explore Gapminder World

An inexhaustible, free graphical resource with unlimited potential for use in STEM classrooms, inviting students to connect ideas from across disciplines and through time, and with pointers to fantastic supplemental TED videos by gapminder’s developer, Hans Rosling.

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This collection of world maps, where countries are re-sized on each map according to the subject of interest, can be explored through broad categories (e.g. health, energy, disease, environment, resources) that provide wonderful entry points for exploring scientific topics.

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Profiles of scientists

Developed by NOVA for public television, this site brings science to life by providing videos of diverse scientists who have interesting biographies, including Mae Jamison, an astronaut and dancer who appeared in Star Trek, and James Levine, an obesity research and slam poetry champion.

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NOVA virtual laboratories

Developed by NOVA, this site provides a suite of engaging, hands-on, interactive activities that feature evolution, cybersecurity, sunspots, sustainable energy, clouds, and RNA.

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BioQuest Numb3r5 Count!

Providing a host of data-oriented resources, the real gem here is the resource on basic statistics, which provides a wealth of interactive activities for developing foundational skills in interpreting statistics and graphs.

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Virtual labs from HHMI

These well-produced virtual laboratories address a variety of biological topics with societal relevance, including identifying bacteria, quantifying evolution, creating transgenic flies, and observing neuronal activity.

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BioInteractive from HHMI

This rich collection of free, sortable, and ratable online biology materials offers short films, animations, teacher guides, and lectures on topics as wide-ranging as skin color and mapping genes to traits in dogs.

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Science in the Classroom

This extensive collection of papers published in Science is a great resource for teaching about scientific papers because it provides automated annotations that allow students to easily highlight different components of the text, including references to prior work and policy implications.

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How Science Works

This video, produced by the California Academy of Sciences, uses a discovery about spiders to challenge the conventional and simplistic view of how science is done, providing a wonderful supplement to the excellent, rich, online materials on understanding science from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

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Using PBL to investigate scientific claims

Brickman et al. 2012

The authors describe an approach to having students work in teams to investigate scientific claims in the media, a useful and transferrable skill.

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Graph Design IQ Test

This short but engaging Flash-based quiz presents pairs of graphs and asks users to identify which of the pair does a better job at one particular aspect of data presentation, then provides immediate results on quiz performance.

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"The most effective teachers help students keep the larger questions of the course constantly at the forefront."

— Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 2012

Here, we offer resources on the teaching of science more generally.

Pedagogy in Action

This site provides a rich catalog of resources about student-centered teaching, with brief descriptions of each technique so that you can easily determine if it is suited to your purposes.

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Videos of alternative teaching strategies in action

These videos, developed by the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, provide real examples of alternative pedagogies in practice, including the use of worksheets, clickers, and flipped classes.

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Resources for Problem-Based Learning

From the University of Delaware’s site on problem-based learning, this page provides access to real syllabi and sample exams from courses that make heavy use of problem-based learning and case studies.

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Chapter from 'How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition'

This chapter from a book by the U.S. National Academies Press provides fascinating examples of how experts differ from novices in their understanding, and how this can affect teaching.

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Reacting to the Past

Primarily designed for the teaching of history, this collection from Barnard College requires students to investigate a historical incident from many perspectives and then to participate in a role-play of the events, which can take as much time as a semester or as little as a few days of class. Several of the events have scientific themes, including one on acid rain in Europe in the 1980s, and another on evolution versus creationism in Kansas in 1999. Free registration is required for full access.

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Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

Sutherland et al. 2013

In this paper from Nature, the authors present a list of twenty tips for policy-makers to interpret scientific claims, which are useful for non-majors as well.

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Courses that have won Science prizes for inquiry-based instruction

Each of these courses has been selected by Science magazine as an outstanding example of the use of inquiry-based instruction in the sciences, and many feature strong components that engage students in doing science in the real world.

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iBiology Active Learning videos

By providing motivation, examples, and support, the videos on this site support instructors making the shift towards student-centered learning using evidence-based pedagogies.

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Did you know that:

  • According to this 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, which is summarized online here, 70% of American adults are able to correctly answer 8 of 12 simple questions about science, as determined by a multiple-choice quiz. Is that science literacy?
  • Science For All Americans, an influential report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlines a vision of the purpose and value of K-12 science education for all, not just future scientists, and provides an exhaustive characterization of science literacy.