How do we help are students become scientifically literate?

May 23, 2010 at 8:50 am | Posted in uncategorized | 4 Comments

Posted by Eric Olderstein

Certain students may be able to successfully read and write in subjects such as English or history. However being literate in science is a different task.  What are the abilities that a student must possess to be a literate science student?  Carolyn Wallace discusses ways in which she views scientific literacy:

Scientific literacy requires the ability to both read and write scientific texts in richly constructed ways. A scientifically literate person can understand and apply the fundamental elements of scientific argumentation, including claim, evidence, and warrants.

I believe that there are many factors which enable a student to be fully literate in science. They must be able to analyze graphs, read journals, and write reports along with many other skills. How do we as science teachers help students become scientifically literate? What materials do we have to provide are students with to enable them to be scientifically literate?

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  1. Eric, I liked your question a lot, maybe because it seems more concrete and specific than some that we are wrestling with in this blog. I think there needs to be specific instruction about how scientific writing is differently organized and presented, than say a persuasive essay. I think many students reach high school and beyond, without understanding what a research hypothesis is. Also, background information, hypothesis, procedures, research results, and conclusions, are all constructs that are either unique to, or are used differently in research-based literature.
    We do teach the difference between fact and opinion, to young students, and we do teach students to use a variety of charts and graphs, but I don’t know whether students get much experience with scientific literature. I think the answer to your question about what we provide them with, is the opportunity to extract information from a progressively more sophisticated assortment of scientific literature. We all learn from doing! Angela Maiers reminds us that the text needs to be “just right”, so I don’t think we can expect 4th graders to digest authentic research papers. Can anyone else speak to how much scientific literature is read in, say 5th through 8th grades? I have seen semi-scientific articles in some of the Time for Kids or similar publications.
    Does the curriculum include reading research –based writing even in high school? Biology and earth science would certainly be two great classes in which students could do that. They do write lab reports, but what I have seen as a sub, is that these reports seem very formulaic. The focus seems to be, “copy down this wording”, rather than understand the process, and think how best to communicate that information within the acceptable format of a lab report.
    I took a look at the New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum for Science, and frankly, I don’t know much more than I did. It states, “…students will use scientific inquiry …as appropriate, to pose questions, seek answers and develop solutions.” Maybe my ignorance about the steps between learning standards and curriculum is showing, but it kind of seems that they want students on the pinnacle of the mountain, without having to do any of that onerous climbing work to get there. Does anyone have thoughts on this one?

  2. How do we as science teachers help students become scientifically literate?
    Avoid just teaching to the test and relying on textbooks as the ultimate authority on the subject. In order for students to become literate in the sciences they must be exposed to science writing. It may seem simple but I remember in my high school science classes using only the textbook for my information. (Did anyone else have this type of experience in high school?) I was not exposed to any science articles or journals. I believe this was because my teachers were teaching to the tests. I know the reality is that teachers are judged by their students performance on the standardized tests. However, just because we have standards that does not mean we should use only one source (i.e. textbook) to aid us in teaching those standards. We should find articles, websites, journals that address the standards and incorporate them into our classroom curriculum.
    Side note – I do not know any science company that utilizes textbooks.
    What materials do we have to provide our students with to enable them to be scientifically literate?
    Dianna wrote about us ‘learning from doing’. Students need to be hands on in their education. Research papers are a good tool from my experience. In researching a topic, reading is essential in writing a high-class paper.
    My sister-in-law is a High School Chemistry teacher and she has her students read the product information packets that come in Tylenol and Advil bottles in her classroom. This way the students are looking at something that they are familiar with and can reflect on the impact that these products have on their lives on the chemical level.
    Does anyone else have any thoughts on how to help students improve their scientific literacy?

  3. I agree with what JoAnn and Dianna have said with regards to improving scientific literacy. The best way to do this is through exposure to a wide variety of science writing. Science writing as it is traditionally identified can be found accompanying medicines (nice work JoAnn!), in local news articles, scientific journals and magazines, popular magazines, web pages etc. the list goes on and on. In addition, social sciences also provide an opportunity for students to see how research is conducted in other areas; they will find it is very similar to the scientific method they have been taught since elementary school. Exposure, exposure, exposure. The only way they can become familiar is by seeing science writing for themselves. I would add that this exposure needs to occur in a low-stakes setting. A mini “library” of science writing can help provide an opportunity for this setting. Students are free to read “science” from a variety of sources without having to complete assessments or be guided through them. Part of this rests on the teacher showing interest themselves in this type of writing/reading so that students are more willing to explore it. Lab reports are the most foreign piece of writing my MS students have ever seen, so thrusting it upon them with no background is ineffective. It is my hope that by having them read about experiments and research in other media (magazines, newspapers, webpage) they will be more open to reading all or even just some sections of a formal lab report. Once this comfort level has been established (fingers crossed!) the goal would be to have them transfer their understanding to writing of their own lab reports. In short, students are exposed to Facebook, Myspace, CNN, MTV and other news outlets on a daily basis, learning about their friends and family and the world around them. As mentioned in class, Web 2.0 resources may be an accessible route for students to view science reading materials. Anybody have suggestions as to which Web 2.0 resources would be best? I am more than open to using these to bring science writing to my students and improve their overall scientific literacy.

  4. As per the previous comments, I beleive the ultimate tool in prearing student to be scientifically literate must start with getting them out their exploring the nature of science. JoAnn had it right when she argued that “scientists dont use textbooks.” The nature of science calls for building upon the research of others.

    I think the first hurdle our students need to get over is the notion that science is a concrete set of steps that must be followed in a specific order and once proven this is law. This is the exact opposite of the nature of science. Students need to understand the importance of science in their own lives. Students today look at science as the acts of filling test tubes, and weighing masses, etc. They dont understand the meaning for why we perform these processes.

    If we can get our students to first understand the nature of science, then they will in tuen be able to participate more effectively in a scientific setting. Once they have these experiences in performing true scientific experiments, (not the cut and paste, step by step experiments that have been commonly taught) they will be able to approach science on a higher level.


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