Posted by: thediygeochemist | September 10, 2010

must read for scientific literacy

Many science bloggers address the 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 man who probably, more than anyone, shaped my view of what scientific literacy is.

Dr. Douglas Bond taught at Riverside Community College for over 30 years*. Unlike most community college professors, he had a Ph.D.–from a top-10 university, no less. He taught at a community college because he loved to teach, because he knew he wouldn’t get to teach as much anywhere else. But he also did research on the side–you can check out his papers on Web of Science. How he managed to do any research while carrying a 5/5 teaching load (and raising a family) is beyond me.

Dr. Bond was also an incredible teacher. He illustrated concepts with stories and demonstrations. (The most infamous of these was part of his lecture on entropy: he’d start by tossing an egg out into the classroom.) He worked hard to help his students master the basics of chemistry. But he was also a good teacher because he had a different view of scientific literacy than most of the other science teachers I had growing up.

So, on to the article. If you have access to ACS journals, you can read it here. All of the text between asterisks from D. Bond, “In Pursuit of Chemical Literacy: A Place for Chemical Reactions,” J. Chem. Ed., vol. 66 (2), pp. 157-160, 1989.

* * *
Studies aiming to assess the degree of [scientific] literacy generally frame questions in terms of knowledge of scientific models and principles. Does the person being evaluated have a basic understanding of atomic theory, the mole concept, radioactivity, and other fundamentals of chemistry? … These evaluations suggest that creating literacy is a process of exposing a group of people to important models of science in a pedagogically logical fashion (with as little trauma as possible). But we may be reinforcing the attitudes that turn off a significant number of students, because studies show that most students are already turned off to science in elementary school and that by the middle school years, they do not want any more….

A practicing chemist does not need to be told that chemistry is the study of chemical phenomena, but except for an introductory statement in the first section of the first chapter (or perhaps the preface), one would be hard pressed to know this from the content of an introductory chemistry course. Indeed, many of the current approaches to teaching chemistry are driven more by the need to get through the book, but the books are written primarily to teach skills and concepts required to understand and do chemistry. Thus, we use a pedagogical model whose premise is that the skills necessary to do chemistry and chemical literacy are the same. This gives a false impression of what chemistry is and what it tries to do….

As a basis for working toward an improved literacy among the local populace, we start with the hypothesis that a chemically literate person is one who is curious about chemical phenomena and makes an effort toward satisfying that curiosity. If this person is a chemist or chemistry student, he or she will regard the need to satisfy this curiosity as more or less a full-time effort. Those who are not chemists may find that fulfillment spread less intensely, and over a long period of time, either from formal classes, reading in newspapers, books, and magazines, or through private conversations.

There are some scientific values or attitudes that must be part of this curiosity that give some meaning to the search and that make it possible to deal with the uncertainties that will arise. These involve the following types of scientific thought trains:

(1) The answer to a question may not be obtainable at the present time for one reason or another.
(2) An explanation given previously appears to be untenable in light of new observations. We will need to develop a new hypothesis.
(3) An explanation of chemical phenomenon given previously is not capable of shedding light on a new, but related phenomenon; however, it appears to be valid for the older phenomenon. The original idea needs to be extended.
(4) How can an established concept be applied to other chemical phenomena? Does it have practical applications?

Since first impressions are often important in forming opinions, we might consider what first impression we would like students to have of chemistry. This will vary from one instructor to another, but using the hypothesis stated above, students should see chemical phenomena and be curious enough about what they see to try to understand the chemistry….

When the course is over, the students will continue to encounter chemical phenomena whether they like it or not. Chemistry is in the newspapers, magazines, and nightly news programs. It figures in politics and economics and is an important part of our culture. The literate person now uses his chemistry background as a base to seek understanding of these phenomena and their key features. This may require additional learning, and it is this continuing interest in science that constitutes literacy. Thus, chemical literacy is not a product, it is a state of mind; it is not achieved, it is pursued….

As important as terms are in understanding chemistry, they are a means, not an end. In spite of the emphasis that we place on models and model building in chemistry and in other sciences, models are simply a mental construct to facilitate the understanding of chemical phenomena. At its core, science involves curiosity about the natural world, not a knowledge of models or terms. The models can change, but curiosity will always triumph and in combination with the scientific values, lead to an understanding of what we believe to be correct today and an ability to accommodate our revised picture 20 years from now….

The criticism that many theories have exceptions (often many) is valid. This, however, should not stop us from teaching theories as generalizations of chemical phenomena. Such criticism merely points out that in the future, the theory may be scrapped or extended (the second and third of our scientific values) and may even provoke the student to ask relevant questions. The danger comes in extremes. The teaching of only facts neglects the idea that science can be organized, however imperfectly. In spite of their loopholes, many theories are for the moment adequate models of our present perception of the world. The teaching of theory only gives a false impression that chemistry is answers, not questions. Chemical literacy will not occur when the coin lands with either the theory or the fact side up. Only when it stands on edge and both sides are visible can we approach chemical literacy.

* * *
Heavy stuff. I strongly advise anyone with an interest in science education to read the whole thing. (Especially if you are a chemist–he outlines the way he set up his intro chem course to encourage scientific literacy.)

*Sadly, I had the misfortune to grow up in Riverside, a city one of my sisters refers to as “the armpit of California.” If you’d seen the smog we had to endure in the 1970’s, you might understand.


  1. […] anonymity is that I can now give credit where it is due.  A few years back I wrote a post entitled Must Read For Scientific Literacy.  There I claimed that the author of the article I cited, Dr. Douglas Bond, was “the man who […]

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