The Challenge and Promise of Scientific Literacy
Science for all?
Science is a way of knowing about the natural world based on reproducible observations and carefully controlled experiments. Almost everyone has been a student of science at some stage along one’s educational journey.
For most part, however, science lessons have emphasised the accumulation of knowledge to crack entrance examinations to colleges and universities as opposed to helping students apply science in daily life. Nevertheless, countries around the world continue to spend a lot of time and resources trying to get students to apply science in their daily lives. The current evidence on whether these investments have enhanced people’s ability to apply science in their daily lives is weak. This is because people do not interpret science in a uniform way.
As Noah Feinstein, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, points out in an article in the journal Science, an Alzheimer’s advocacy group, a biotech investment company, and a religious coalition may all be interested in stem-cell research, but with different motivations and interests shaping their engagement. To complicate matters even more, science itself is not a uniform thing. For example, the science involved in climate modelling is not the same as the science involved in clinical trials of medicines and vaccinations.
Given these idiosyncrasies about the public’s engagement with science, most people engage with science differently. While there are people interested in science for its own sake, most people’s interest depends on specific issues or problems that may be immediate to their lives. Thus, a parent of an autistic child may explore the scientific literature related to autism, but she will not be engaging with it from a scientist’s point of view. Her engagement, therefore, depends on her context.
Think of science education and classrooms, textbooks, facts, theories, and experiments come to mind, but if lay people engage with science in highly contextualised and personal ways, then, from a practical point of view, the general scientific canon becomes less useful to them. This is the challenge. Most countries, if not all, have set the goal of achieving scientific literacy for all. The question, however, remains how. Tackling the complex question of how requires understanding the what and the why of scientific literacy.
What is scientific literacy and why is it important?
Scientific literacy is the ability to use scientific facts, concepts, and methodologies to understand everyday issues. It is more than just understanding concepts. Instead, it is also about interpreting theories and ideas with a scientific temper in order to participate better in civic and cultural affairs and to improve economic productivity.
Scientific literacy is a powerful tool to understand the natural world around us. It is one of the main ways by which we inquire, discover, and draw meaningful inferences. A scientifically literate person can evaluate different points of view based on available evidence. Science-related issues make headlines every day, especially since the advent of the Covid pandemic – issues relating to the corona virus, nuclear weapons, climate change, space travel, satellite launches, vaccine development and the emerging opioid crises to name just a few.
While many of these issues may appear to be important political issues of our time, a deeper look will show that they are also important scientific issues of our age. To be able to make sense of these issues, and to be able to get involved in meaningful public debate about them, citizens around the world need to be scientifically literate, but it is not just a matter of civic participation. Science literacy also has a major role to play in people’s personal lives.
Politicians and legislators need to understand science to design, implement and monitor important public policies. An understanding of science really does touch every aspect of our public and personal lives.
Everything from making better health and nutritional choices and understanding the implications of radiation in cancer treatments like chemotherapy to understanding the long-term effects of human-induced climate change on the agriculture sector require a certain amount of scientific literacy. An understanding of underlying scientific ideas can help us decide whether we should invest in electric vehicles and vaccination programmes, and debate whether gene-editing technology should be widely available or not.
Going beyond people’s personal lives, the understanding of scientific ideas and concepts is becoming ever more important in people’s professional lives as well. While engineers and physicians obviously deal in science and technology daily, lawyers also need to understand scientific concepts such as genetic fingerprinting, spectroscopic analysis, and drug testing. Banking and investment professionals who are responsible for lending or investing in science-based companies and start-ups need to understand the underlying science behind the business models. Politicians and legislators need to understand science to design, implement and monitor important public policies. An understanding of science really does touch every aspect of our public and personal lives.
Inspiring the next generation
Scientifically literate parents and teachers lay the foundation for children to learn and appreciate the wonders of science. By adopting a scientific perspective, they help reinforce the role science plays in daily life and inculcate curiosity and a questioning mindset in children.
It is important to stress that being scientifically literate does not require a command of complex vocabulary or abstract mathematical theories and tools. Even some of the most complex scientific ideas can be explained in easy-to-understand, simple terms. Scientific literacy is not about learning how to use gizmos and gadgets. Instead, the real objective of scientific literacy is to instil in people the skill and competence of critical thinking.
Becoming scientifically literate involves students being able to describe objects and events around them, ask questions, acquire knowledge, construct explanations, test those explanations in different ways, and then be able to communicate the resulting ideas to others.
By inculcating a sense of wonder, curiosity and critical thinking, scientifically literate teachers can make science more accessible to all students, regardless of age, sex, cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, it is also important to understand that science is something that students do as opposed to something that is done to them. Becoming scientifically literate involves students being able to describe objects and events around them, ask questions, acquire knowledge, construct explanations, test those explanations in different ways, and then be able to communicate the resulting ideas to others. Such an active approach to learning science can mean students applying learned concepts to possibly new questions, and engaging in active problem-solving, planning, group discussions and decision-making. This means shifting away from the mere presentation and consumption of canonical content and towards an approach that focuses on understanding. Learning science through such an active approach may be one of the ways to address the ‘how’ of scientific literacy identified above.
Through this column of The Scando Review, we hope to bring science together in an integrated fashion, weaving together stories, ideas and concepts from biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth sciences and many other disciplines with a goal of fostering scientific literacy among teachers and students alike.
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