“Why do I have to know anything about Chemistry?”

May 23, 2010 at 8:46 am | Posted in uncategorized | 1 Comment

Musings on the importance of Science Literacy

Posted by Chris Grayeski

It is rare that student opinions factor much into my stream of consciousness in any given day but there is one comment that regularly stops me in my tracks (and I assume many other teachers as well). The comment being “why do I have to learn this?” This includes any other iterations (i.e. when do I have to know this, why is this important, why should I care etc.) as well. Are my students so far removed from the world around them that they fail to make any connections between the classroom and their lives? I certainly hope not, and I do not think that is the case. Our students have gotten too busy to notice how every subject, every curriculum; every test can teach them something about the world they live in.

There is something that every school subject has in common that could potentially unite them in a battle against student apathy. Reading occurs every minute of every day for every student. Even the weakest of our students (and readers) still have developed enough reading ability to function on a day to day basis (granted that some of their reading levels are only helpful in 8th grade real-world situations). This cross-curricular connection can give teachers an opportunity to mold better readers beyond the one period they sit in my classroom. If all of our students are reading (and learning how to read better) in all of their classes, everybody wins (Yay!).

Science literacy, specifically, demonstrates a whole new ballgame. Filled with seemingly endless facts and information, why would the average citizen deem it important in their daily lives? If it is worded this way, I can’t say I blame the students for asking why it should matter to them. In an article titled Why Should You Be Scientifically Literate?, Robert M. Hazen from actionbioscience.org states:

“More and more, scientific and technological issues dominate national discourse, from environmental debates on ozone depletion and acid rain, to economic threats from climate change and invasive species. Understanding these debates has become as basic as reading. All citizens need to be scientifically literate to:

  • appreciate the world around them
  • make informed personal choices

It is the responsibility of scientists and educators to provide everyone with the background knowledge to help us cope with the fast-paced changes of today and tomorrow…”

I have no problem believing in and supporting what Hazen says, science literacy is without a doubt becoming increasingly important (i.e. BP oil spill). My difficulty is in figuring out how to get this across to students. What kinds of text resources could best demonstrate this connection to the students and in the process create better readers in science and other subjects as well? Current events are great, but do the students possess enough background knowledge to make them relevant today? Pre-reading strategies become of utmost importance when it comes to dissecting (pun intended) science texts.


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  1. This is a very interesting topic. As the world has moved into a more scientific/technological age, it would seem that citizens should be able to be scientifically literate. I would have to agree with Chris and Hazen on this point. During elections, there are many scientific ideas and concepts brought up that voters need to be aware of. Just having the basic reading skills may not be enough for people to fully understand certain topics.
    The problem is however how do we get our students more scientifically literate? It sounds a lot easier said than done. We could provide students with scientifically scholarly journal articles, but that is not practical. I would have to agree with Chris that reading strategies become very important when beginning to get students to become scientifically literate. Reading current events would be a start by at least exposing the students to some sort of scientific material.
    I was wondering if we have to get the idea across to students that scientific literacy is important. Would it be possible throughout the year to slip in various scientific documents and eventually a scientific literacy is built. As I have never been a teacher I do not know how practical this idea would be. Everything sounds good in practice until you hit the field. I would think that reading strategies would help alleviate some of the stresses associated with reading scientific material. Ultimately this all comes down to getting students engaged in the material to be read.

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