“Revisiting Science Literacy”

For me, science literacy or rather scientific literacy, expresses the idea of understanding science in a way that helps to understand the problems of science, not necessarily to be a scientist. In one sense, being scientifically literate offers one the ability to think independently, critically, and creatively.

One of the first science education papers I presented, way back in 1986, was entitled “In Pursuit of Learning: The Rediscovery of Scientific Literacy.” This was not an argument for becoming a scientist but, rather, for understanding how science is a part of our lives and how to use the processes of science as a means to problem solving in all areas of life.

I would make the argument in 1987 that how one views the role of science is especially critical if one is to be successful in today’s increasingly technological society. In 1994 Carl Sagan wrote,

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That is a clear prescription for disaster.” (Carl Sagan – What Is Science? From Feynman to Sagan to Asimov to Curie, an Omnibus of Definitions)

But it would appear today, with the debates over climate change and the teaching of evolution, that the idea that we need to be a scientifically literate society has somehow gotten lost in the discussion. These leads me to ask two questions:

  1. How did we get to this point in time?
  2. What do we have to do to change our course of action?

How did we get to this point in time?

When I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I looked at the goals of the chemistry curriculum projects developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The various curriculum projects in biology (BSCS), chemistry, physics, and earth science, were developed in the early 1960s as a response to a perceived need for an increased awareness of science and mathematics following the 1957 launch of Sputnik I by the then Soviet Union. The focus of these programs was experimentation and development of thinking skills (see “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”).  It should be noted that the central focus for the three versions of the BSCS curriculum would be evolution and its role in the development of biology.

Referring specifically to the chemistry programs, the overall goal was to help

“… the student to acquire a knowledge of chemistry, not merely some knowledge about it.” (Pimentel, G. C. and Ridgeway, D. W., 1972, “CHEM Study: Knowledge of Chemistry”; Pimentel, G. C. and Ridgeway, D. W. – Science Activities.

Basolo and Parry also presented a discussion of the development of the CHEM Study program in “An Approach to Teaching Systematic Inorganic Reaction Chemistry in Beginning Chemistry Courses”, Journal of Chemical Education, 57)

Students would engage “in the pattern of scientific activity – experimental collection of data, assessment and organization of facts, deduction of unifying principles, and application of these principles in developing expectations (making predictions).

Science teaching in general would improve because “real” teaching would replace authoritarian pedagogy, true chemical content would replace descriptive chemistry facts, study would replace memorization of unrelated facts, and students would be evaluated on their “true learning” instead of simply how much information they would “regurgitate” (quotes by authors) during exams. As a result of these programs, students would be better prepared for college science courses. (G. A. Ramsey, A Review of the Research and Literature on the Chemical Education Materials Study Project, Research Review Series – Science Paper 4 (Ohio State University ED 037592), 1970, p 2. and Osborn, G, 1969, “Influence of the Chemical Bond Approach and the Chemical Education Materials Study on the New York Regents Examination in High School Chemistry”, School Science and Mathematics, 69, p 53)

But each of these curriculum projects were based on students being involved in active experimentation and the development of knowledge through experimentation.

The problem with this approach, at least from an administrative viewpoint, is that it is an expensive approach. Experiments require equipment and supplies, items on a budget that cannot be amortized over a period of years. This was not necessarily a problem at first because there was plenty of money available through federal grants to buy the necessary equipment and supplies but as other issues arose (such as the Viet Nam war), this money was some of the first money to be cut from the overall federal budget and it was never replaced by state or local funds.

So as the supplies ran out and the equipment wore out, the teaching of science became dominated by the information in the textbook (textbooks have a long shelf-life so they are favored by school accountants). And without experiments to show how information was gathered and theories developed, scientific theories slowly became scientific facts or at least the correct answer on standardized examinations.

No longer were students asked to critically analyze the information before them; rather, all they had to do is know which facts fit which holes and respond accordingly. And in today’s environment, where scores on standardized tests are used to measure both student success and teacher proficiency (neither of which are the purpose of such exams), we don’t know what a scientific theory is or what it means.

We no longer have the ability to analyze the information before us. And we rely on many individuals, some qualified, others not qualified, to tell us what the information means or doesn’t mean.


Literacy can mean many things but the most important thing that it means is that we have the ability to understand the information before us. And an inability to understand is probably the greatest challenge we face today.

This is when science intersects with society. Let’s face it, there is something going on with our climate and our environment that is not right. There is data that suggests changes are taking place in our climate that will soon be irreversible; yet we continue to hear from individuals in position of power and other quasi-experts that there are no changes and that we should keep continuing doing what we have always been doing.

Being scientifically literate does not necessarily mean that one is a chemist, a biologist, a geologist, an astronomer, a physicist, or anyone of a myriad of possibilities in the sciences; it means that one has the ability to see the data and analyze the data and understand what is happening. The scientific process is more of a thinking process and can be the basis for all that we do, no matter the area.

We need critical thinking at all levels, and an ability to question any and every “trend” be it social, scientific or political. It does our society a tremendous disservice if our government buys into one line of thinking, because literally, they will have bought one line of research.

A truly open society will have an open discussion, and an open marketplace, regarding finding out what’s wrong, and how to fix it. Right now, it seems that we are unwilling to have such a conversation or discussion.

Somewhere in the process, our educational system has regressed backwards into the 19th century, with openness and creativity being sacrificed for the goal of rigid right and wrong testing. There are great educational ideas being offered, but few are listening, and fewer are interpreting or implementing with sensitivity to true liberal education. By liberal I mean, wide ranging, open-ended, possessing or manifesting a free and generous heart. A broad and enlightened approach to thinking is the foundation of a truly liberal education.

We have been engaged in a number of wars over the past few years that are, perhaps only indirectly but nonetheless, tied to the world’s supply of oil. I realize that the reasons behind nations going to war are perhaps a bit more complex but it seems rather limited to think that the only way to world safety is through military power.

Clearly, we cannot afford to have ideological dictators in possession of nuclear weapons but how do we solve that problem? There are those who will say that only the threat of military action or possibly the imposition of such action are the only way to solve this problem. But that is an answer locked into the old way of thinking.

It is clear that more liberally open discussions about the nature of evil are a step to the ultimate solution, the law of love. But the sin of religious rigidity has made that discussion extremely difficult.

Why do we constantly seek other sources of fossil fuels instead of seeking alternative sources of energy? How long can we ignore the evidence of the destruction of water supplies and the environment in general that comes with the search for fossil fuels?

What are we doing in the world to remove the causes of war? What are we doing to remove the poverty and the oppression that feed the fires of violence and encourage war. What are we as a total society doing in places to help the Sudanese and other nationalities affected by war and violence? Except as people of faith, one at a time, we are doing very little.

As I commend those who freely offer of themselves, I am reminded of the conversation attributed between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau but which may not have actually occurred. Emerson is supposed to have visited Thoreau when he was in jail and asked him, “Henry, why are you in jail?” Thoreau’s response was to the point, “Waldo, why are you out of jail?” No matter whether this actually took place or not, we are one side of this question or the other. We are at a point where we must take positive action, seeking solutions that transcend the normal responses, responses that seem to have failed us too many times.

What do we have to do to change our course of action?

First, we have to realize that there is no quick fix to this problem. And that will make it very difficult to actually change things. We have fallen into the notion that we can quickly solve any problem, no matter the difficulty, and problems that can’t be fixed immediately can’t be fixed at all. Our thirty-second sound bite has come back to bite us hard

We need to reorder our priorities and quit spending money on the destruction of the planet (through war and neglect) and begin spending money on the development of the planet and the people who inhabit it. Military power and its ability to destroy is not the way to create a new world. But investing in people seems to me to be the most logical way of insuring that we have a future. What is really needed are more creative approaches to all of it. I believe that education requires this paradigm shift, toward creative, executive and critical thinking.

We have to change minds and hearts. We need to begin putting money back into our schools, improving the science laboratories and providing support for science and mathematics education, not only at the high school level but in the earlier grades as well. And let’s not forget the other subjects either. Music, art, and literature play an equal and important part of the creative process as much as science and mathematics.

When we begin the process of teaching thinking skills with the younger children, we help them gain higher order skills in addition to preparing them for the later so-called academic learning. If we are able to make the paradigm shift, and teach with brain development in mind, it should not cost as much as we think it needs to.

What students need are real problems to work on. Students are always surprisingly brilliant if you let them be, by asking questions that are truly curious about what they, the students, are thinking. It’s also the way to tap into what truly motivates them, and will help them soar beyond anything we dull-minded adults could dream of.

As some of my former students will tell you, I have often noted that the most curious creatures in the world is a two-year old. And yet, by the time they arrive at high school and college, all of the curiosity seems to have disappeared and many will say that they “hate science.” Let me just say that society desperately NEEDS their ideas and creativity, it’s how the world will ultimately be saved. Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret Mead’s daughter wrote in her book, Peripheral Visions,

“It takes adult effort to turn a bright open child into a sullen underclass.”

She meant that our emphasis on “correctness” eliminates their fresh view of the world, and grows up people who are dependent and bored.

The scientific process is and will always be a cooperative process. It may be a cliché but two heads are always better than one and allow for a diversity of views which can lead to productive discussions. Separated twin studies have shown that God did make us both conservative and liberal, possibly because He understood better than we that His Creation works because of the beautiful dialectic of thesis ~ antithesis ~ synthesis.

I began this by noting that the issue of scientific literacy, for me anyway, is almost thirty years old. I will not say that a focus on it will change the way we are headed but it will help find the means and the processes to make the changes that do need to be made. It will offer a way to renew the creative processes we have had from the very beginning of life and allow us to create a better tomorrow, not only for ourselves but for the generations to come.

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