Mandate of National Standards
In the first sentence of the National Science Education Standards Overview (NRC, 1996) we read that the primary reason for articulating standards to guide science programs, professional development of science teachers, content and skills to be taught in schools, and assessment in science education is to achieve scientific literacy of all Americans. The authors of the standards give several reasons why scientific literacy is paramount.
Literacy means more than the ability to read and write. Historically, scientific literacy referred to nonscientists' need to understand science in a democratic society where science plays a prominent role in economic, personal, and political issues. Science literacy became a national goal in the 1980's (Bybee, 1997).
According to the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996), scientific literacy is defined as, "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity" (p. 22). Elaborating on this definition, the authors give several examples of what a scientific literate person can know and be able to do:
Prior to the pronouncements of the authors of the National Science Education Standards, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science called for the science literacy of all Americans in Project 2061 (AAAS, 1989). Science for All Americans called for science literacy for all. According to AAAS (1989) there are many facets of science literacy, to include: being familiar with the natural world; having awareness of the interdependence of science, mathematics, and technology; knowing the strengths and limitations of science and technology; being able to use scientific ways of thinking for personal and societal purposes; and, understanding key principles and concepts of science. To achieve science literacy for all, schools were asked not to teach more content, but to focus on what is essential to science literacy and to teach these essentials more effectively. It is important to note that AAAS broadens the definition of science literacy to include mathematics and technology, which are addressed in separate chapters in Science for All Americans and woven throughout the science portions of the document. The modules for professional development activities found on this website often include technology content and mathematics processes. Teachers of science must be aware of the interdependence and unity of science, mathematics, and technology as they deepen their knowledge of the natural world and sharpen their science teaching skills.
Thier and Daviss (2002) define science literacy as knowledge of science facts and concepts coupled with the ability to articulate and communicate these ideas using language. The authors make the point that effective science teaching and learning are dependent on strong language skills. "Science and language are inextricably linked in the pursuit, determination, and communication of meaning in the context of the physical world" (p. 8). Using language, teachers clarify and communicate the meaning of science for students. For assessment of their learning, students can effectively use written and spoken language to communicate their science understandings to their teachers. Skills useful for language acquisition may be enhanced by activities conducted in the science class.
Implications for Teaching
While not specifically listed in each of the modules for providers of professional development for science teachers, suggestions to strengthen the science and literacy connection are offered here. See Thier and Daviss (2002) for details of many of these suggestions:
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1989). Science for all Americans: Project 2061. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bybee, R. W. (1997). Achieving scientific literacy from purposes to practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Their, M. & Daviss, B. (2002). The new science literacy: Using language skills to help students learn science. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Indicators of Scientific Literacy
Chapter 7 from the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2006; covers science and technology: public attitudes and understanding
Importance of Scientific Literacy
Chapter 7 from the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2004; covers science and technology: public attitudes and understanding
21st Century Skills Scientific Literacy
Defines scientific literacy, contains a bibliography for more information on scientific literacy and offers indicators of scientific literate students
A Parent's Guide to Raising Scientifically Literate Children
Suggestions from the National Education Association for parents to encourage children to learn and enjoy science, including what to do if parents cannot answer children's questions, links to resources, and suggested books.
Foundation for Scientific Literacy
Includes links to science in the news and other resources (projects and newsletter) to promote science and scientific literacy in popular culture
American Scientist Online
An article from The American Scientist journal on-line - defines scientific literacy and discusses the importance of a scientifically literate population and includes related links of interest
21st Century Scientist
The Nuffield Curriculum Centre (Great Britain) offers its definition of scientific literacy and gives lists of "ideas about science" and "science explanations"
Scientific Literacy and National Security
The author of this article elaborates on his opening statement: "Scientific illiteracy has harmful implications not just for individuals, but it may also be hazardous to our national security."
NASA Library bibliography of scientific literacy
Compilation of articles, books, and Internet resources on scientific literacy from NASA
National Science Teachers Association
Articles found on NSTA website: