Scientific Literacy


Recently, our Facebook page featured a link to this NPR blog post inspired by yet another science quiz (largely failed by the American public) that questioned the very nature of scientific literacy.

At the end of the article the blogger poses two questions: How should we assess scientific literacy and how can we foster it?

First, her question about how to foster scientific literacy. Headwaters Science Institute’s mission reads, “To empower students to discover their potential for critical thinking and inquiry-based learning.” At HSI we aim to help students gain scientific literacy by having students actually do science. This may seem simple, and relatively speaking it is, but surprisingly, most high school science students never get the opportunity to do real science. They take plenty of science classes and may do many hands-on labs, but they rarely have the opportunity to develop their own research question and actually investigate it.


While students definitely struggle with the very real challenges of doing real science (which our protocols help them overcome), we believe that they learn a crucial skill set from the process that could be roughly defined as scientific literacy.

Now, on to the first question, assessing scientific literacy. According to this quiz, the US is not a very scientifically literate nation. But if most people were able to understand and do science themselves, would they do better on the kind of basic science assessments highlighted in the article? My guess is yes. When people can think critically they have better ways of looking at information and analyzing it. Even if they don’t know or can’t recall the exact answer to a question, the skills to think about what make sense can lead them in the right direction. For example, the question about altitude and boiling temperature (which only 34% of people answered correctly) could be attacked using scientific reasoning to realize that water boils at a lower temperature at higher elevations. Without the critical thinking and some confidence in science skills, these types of questions are much harder.

In terms of improving tests of scientific literacy, having more data analysis questions or scientific method application questions could be a big improvement. By answering questions about specific graphs and data sets, test takers could get clues to the answers without needing to have specific knowledge about the topic. Thinking logically and analytically are the life skills we hope to impart to those who do HSI programs or learn from our protocols in the classroom. We believe these skills can help students not just in school, but as effective workers and responsible citizens, too. And, hey, if they happen to improve overall scientific literacy at the same time, all the better!

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