Engaging and Inspiring Students: Optimizing Scientific Literacy

September 27, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 3 Comments

Posted by Tom Kennell

An article by Robert Hazen eloquently summarizes the importance of science literacy in modern society. The ability to deconstruct science text enables one to form clear, logical, and objective opinions concerning the social and political repercussions surrounding technological advancements, scientific achievement, and environmental hazards. I believe one of the biggest obstacles teachers face is overcoming the preconception that science is “hard”, “uncool”, “irrelevant”, and “performed only by geeky people in white lab coats (a direct quote from a student).” An article by Jeff Grabmeier echoes these sentiments, and highlights the importance of breaking down the wall of apprehension and fear students typically associate with science. How do we as teachers make science (and reading about science) fun? How do we make science accessible and user-friendly? What literacy strategies are most effective in obtaining these goals?

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  1. Hey Tom,
    I hear where you are coming from on this one. Reading science text, especially scientific research papers, can be hard and boring for an uninterested reader. Often, the only really interested readers are the ones who have background knowledge about the topic, or people who are currently doing research on the topic. Personally, I know that I only tend to read articles that I am very interested in or have some effect on me. In other words, the topic of the paper has to have some relevance to the reader for them to show interest in it.
    So how do we get students interested in Science reading? We make the topic relevant to them, or we pick topics that are already relevant to the students. For instance, if you were teaching in Texas where many students have family in the oil drilling business, you might pick a reading about the positive and negative effects of oil drilling. This way some students might have background knowledge. You might also find or create a video clip to show before the reading to give further background information on the topic. You might try creating a clip on Animoto. I would also go through the article using the Think Aloud strategy to pull out key ideas for students to connect with. I am not sure if this would make reading a scientific article fun, but these techniques may make the reading more engaging than it would otherwise be.

  2. I hear you on this one – I can’t tell you have many times I’ve tried talking about something that I consider to be fun or interesting about science with my friends, and they all just fake sleep to get me to stop talking. There definitely are some pre-conceived notions about science, and I wonder how I can get students to be interested if I can’t even get my friends interested!

    One thing that I would not discount is novelty in the science classroom. If I can spark curiosity by doing something in a new way, I think I will get some interest right away, and hopefully, by being creative, carry that through. An example of this was in last semester’s field experience: the science department offered two advanced (but not AP) topics in science classes. One was called Introduction to biotechnology, and the other was called Forensics. I don’t think I need to say which one was full with 30 students, and which one had an anemic number of 5. I think the link to popular TV shows was novel enough to get students into the class, and it was up to the teacher’s creativity to keep the energy high. I think the same principle applies to reading in science – something novel, followed by creativity. We can do novelty and creativity in our use of literacy strategies, and we can be very selective in our choices for reading – try for things that are going to interesting to them.

    I think we do have to walk a fine line between novelty and gimmicky though (as seen in the “Office” video on Angela Maiers blog ). We want to use creativity to make the students motivated by their interest, not prod them into following along.

  3. Tom~

    The attitude towards science is still changed in the mind of those who do not view it as useful or important. And to a certain degree, the attitude towards those who do not view science as useful or important AS UNIMPORTANT is changed in the minds of those who find science interesting.

    I commend the second article for mentioning science classes based around social issues, such as “Good Nuke, Bad Nuke,” because they show science as connected to people. I know some science purists who frown on the “rocks for jocks” courses, but these classes don’t need to be varsity freebies. A well-implemented cross-discipline class is perfectly capable of being challenging and informative.

    As for the first article, there is a third, and more practical, reason for promoting science literacy- technology. The technology inside a transistor in a cellphone required an understanding of quantum mechanics to design and improve. I realize that this is the opposite of a socially-focused science class- it appeals to the serious nerds. However, both approaches are necessary to bring people to the table of shared ideas and to participate in an intellectual community in some degree.


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