Posted by: unlikelygrad | October 16, 2009

what is “scientific literacy”?

I’ve seen many definitions of scientific literacy. The most troubling are the ones I’ve seen linked to elementary and secondary education, which seem to equate scientific literacy with “knowing facts”.

You’ve no doubt read news stories which discuss how American students do poorly on tests of scientific knowledge compared to students in Europe or Asia. This is, of course, disturbing. However, I spent a year in high school living in one of the higher-scoring countries, and I discovered that their “science education” consisted completely of memorization. My classmates couldn’t think for themselves to save their lives.

A better test, I think, is the informal one I just administered to the freshmen in my lab. Basically, they were given two lab periods to do the following: given a large set of reactions, choose two; observe the reactions; based on what you see, come up with a hypothesis of what might be happening; figure out a way to test this hypothesis; do it, and discuss whether your data supports the hypothesis or not.

Not surprisingly (given the way science is taught), 23 out of my 24 students went into immediate shock. “But what am I supposed to do?!!” they asked. Keep in mind that I’m at a tech school where probably 90% of the students are science or engineering majors.

Now that is scientific illiteracy. The whole basis of science, as I see it, is the scientific method: knowing how to take the facts in front of you, think about them, consider whether the current model of understanding is correct, figure out ways to discover new facts, experiment, see if you were right…yadayadayada.

How do we impart this to children? Well, it clearly helps if the teachers understand what science really is: see, for example, this study showing that students of teachers with research experience did better on science tests.

This is a topic that I feel very strongly about. So much so that I spent two years of my life exploring and writing a book (self-published, small print run) about it. The book, of course, is targeted towards homeschoolers, since that’s the market I know best, but I know at least one elementary school teacher who is trying to implement the principles in her classroom.

Someday I will write more about what people can do. But for now, I’ll leave you to ponder what I’ve written so far: I need to go help my quant lab students learn to think scientifically.



  1. One of my dreams is to build a school which does stuff along the lines of what you’re talking here and as you know, I’m from one of those unfortunate countries where Science is taught the way you mentioned in this post. I already have a group of likeminded people, all people who’ve graduated from top engineering/science schools, musicians, poets, etc. Education is something that I feel strongly about and is something (wrong methods) that I think is the bane of a country like India. Biases and hatred is forced fed to kids, just as topics in Science are fed to memory rather than to the intellect. This gives rise to a lot of problems, one of which is an unjustified hatred towards Pakistanis, for instance. Pakistan and India have very little to fight about really..all that happened was about 50 yrs ago and there’s no reason why the current generation should be incensed about it. I attribute that to education as well.. seeds of bias are sown right in school (middle-high). Anyway… that’s enough rant for now 😉

  2. Well, liszt85, if you want a consultant on science issues, you can count me in. I’ve worked with kids (my own and others) of all ages and ability levels in both math and science. Hmmmm…wondering how to give you my contact info w/o posting it in a public place…

  3. […] concept of scientific literacy, especially as it regards science education. I’ve addressed scientific literacy before. However, I thought it might be fun to post snippets from a very old paper written by the […]

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