AAAS Conference Coverage: Aiming for Scientific Literacy by Teaching the Process, Nature, and Limits of Science

The goal of this session was to discuss our science literacy, how to improve it so the public and our government can make better informed decisions, and looking at how to teach controversial subjects.

Program Description

This is my attempt to turn my scrawled notes into something coherent and then my thoughts are in italics at the bottom. Please forgive any errors in the notes as poor transcription on my part. Also, please note, I had to step out of the room at one point so I don’t have any notes for Judy Scotchmoor from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

Speaker:

Jon Miller from MSU

Miller spoke about Civic Scientific Literacy in the US and how it is measured.

We agree that we need scientific literacy

  • for our democracy–to understand things such as stem cell research, climate, energy, etc.  as they come through public policy and as voting issues,
  • to make us better consumers and workers,
  • and on an individual level, as with our health, so we can make smart decisions.

Miller’s focus on is on Civic Scientific Literacy, using Benjamin Shen’s* definition as knowledge for public policy regarding science and technology so that we can make good and informed decisions.

Of our general  population: 6% become scientists, 7% become scientific supporters, and the other 86% are potential voters.  So we need to work now to give students a foundation and a toolbox for issues that they will come across in twenty years. Formal schooling can provide basic constructs to understanding new and emerging science and information.  we need to be thinking not only about what they can comprehend today but planning for 2031–what issues might be arising then?

For the past twenty years they have been collecting the Index of Scientific Civic Literacy.  Over time this has shown that we are improving in scientific literacy but by no means is our work done.

Looking at comparable data from Japan and Europe, the US is the only country to require a year of science during undergraduate studies. That fact plus education is the biggest influence on civic scientific literacy.  but this is not a long term solution–though highly important.

He closed with the point that these general education science courses are usually our last time to talk to our senators and teach them about science before they are elected.

Speaker:

Norman Lederman, IIT

Scientific literacy uses concepts to help us process new ideas and make decisions, both understanding the content and how we create it. Society influences science and funds it. A literate society should also understand the limits of society.

A scientifically literate person finds questions from curiosity.

What is Science?

  • Body of Laws (concept, theories, laws)
  • Process/Method (inquiry-derivation of knowledge)
  • Nature of Science (characteristics of knowledge)

Lederman acknowledged that we could argue endlessly about the definitions but these are linked and what we’re working with for now.

Insofar as scientific literacy, we need to determine how this is defined and used in curriculum reform. He defined it as a teaching approach and an instructional outcome-the latter with the components of doing of and performance and also what students know about inquiry.

Important knowledge ABOUT science inquiry

  • We always begin with a question–though not always a hypothesis
  • We have procedures, but what are they guided by
  • We weill not always get the same answer
  • Our procedures must improve our results
  • Data must support our conclusions
  • Data != Evidence
  • What we know plus what we collect

When we’re approaching the Nature of science we want to be tenative, creative, observing and inferring, recognizing it is subjective, working with theory and law, making it culturally embedded and empiraclly based.

Our current practice has been the implicit approach: learning inquiry by osmosis (doesn’t work!). We need to move to an explicit approach–giving inquiry instruction and the abouts of it and whys so that you move beyond being lectured and letting kids reflect upon why.

A key phrase he mentioned was “we accept” rather than “we believe.

Speaker:

Karen Oates, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Educators do not work alone but our practice as faculty is rarely what made us fall in love with science. Scientists became so not to do rote experimentation and she argued that we’re teaching non-sicence.

As educators we have to support the students, the university mission and our curriculum.

What we have in common is

  • Our passion for science  of knowing
  • Our desire to share our own passion with students
  • A strong desire to learn from each other
  • A willingness to work harder when the payoffs are big (in research or the life of a student)

Our scientific world view:

  • We can understand things about our world
  • Ideas are subject to change
  • We can’t provide answers to all topics

She linked to www.sencer.net

*****Here is where the presentation I had to step out for was*****

Speaker:

Mark Stefanski

Stefanski presented a case study of his own AP Bio class. He noted he’s teaching at a private university in California, which affords him a lot more opportunity to experiment in the classroom than what the average public teacher probably can find.  But he wanted to teach the process of science, not only the content, for while the core ideas are pretty stable, the details are always changing and students need to be able to evaluate new science claims. He was working to teach them that the process to discover content wasn’t random but was instead a constant and continual feedback loop.

He said that it was better to teach not as a series of locked in steps in 7th grade (the “scientific method”) but instead to point to loops that are continuous and that you cannot get out of.

A point he made was that we must teach students and ask them to inquire if there was a better answer.

Abigail’s Notes:

When Jon Miller was talking I was amused thinking back on my own science requirements as an undergraduate. After going through a relatively rigorous high school program (Bio, 2 years of Chem, 1 year of Physics), I ended up taking Psychology as a lab science. I wonder what I might know or approach differently if I’d thrown myself into a good basic chemistry course instead? How much more might I have gotten if more science or two semesters in different areas had been required? Such is not to disparage my first semester prof–he certainly taught us a great amount and made us work every single day with our lab rats.

Ledermen brought to mind the session I’d attended about international need for scientific inquiry in the classroom. We have some scientific inquiry in the classroom, but obviously we need to improve.

And all of this came back to a money, time, and teaching to the test question. Are we giving teachers the time and ability to be creative in teaching science in the classroom? It’s easy to test them on the periodic table, it’s much hard to teach them inquiry and exploration.

It was unclear how to scale up something like Stefanski’s presentation and some of the experiments he spoke about, considering ever shortened school days, increased class sizes, and reduced funding.

*Shen, Benjamin S.P. 1975. Science Literacy and the Public Understanding of Science. In: Communication of Scientific Information (ed. by Stacy B. Day), pp 44-52.

One Comment

  1. Comment by Wyman Stewart:

    Our elected officials have access to scientific experts to answer their questions, is my reply to Jon Miller. They testify before Congress regularly; not including scientific reports sent to various agencies, who help Congress form scientific policies for the USA. Which (in part) allows your Congressman and Senator to concentrate on his/her re-election, almost immediately after being elected to office. (Often their # 1 priority, be that good or bad.)

    As a terrible note-taker, in all humbleness, I submit this criticism: I gained little from the notes you posted. At most, I see a lot of money wasted in holding this meeting, with the best of intentions.

    The goal should be to create a student-body with a lifetime interest in science, along with staying informed about science. This involves showing and teaching students how science affects their everyday life, through actively engaging students in hands-on science–beyond the textbook and the typical school/college lab. This teaches the scientific method, while teaching scientific inquiry. Questioning is a key to science and a key to each person’s future. Proper questioning is becoming a lost art.

    Hope I’ve not insulted you or the good people you mention in your post. Always nice to find those who care. The majority of us are wondering where our next job will come from (me, for example) or how to hold onto the job we have. We look at gas prices, then our finances, and wonder how long we can sustain such an expense. The same with food, medical care, etc. The great minds who should provide solutions to these “living” issues, seem as baffled as the rest of us, but often well paid (by US), they are insulated from the need for real solutions. That’s to say, “scientific literacy” as much as I believe in it, is one of the first things tossed off our priority list. (See Maslow’s Pyramid for why this may be so.)

    Hang in there. When the masses are ready to listen again, you do want to be prepared with your message. Thanks for your message and thank you for your time.