What is science literacy?


Some background

What is science literacy?

This is a question I’ve asked myself and others a lot in the past years. My peers and I strive to increase ‘science literacy’ but we don’t have a clear understanding of what it is. I’ve seen a lot of people confuse science literacy with delivery, and with results of science literate society.

This highlights the biggest problem of our working definition; we don’t have one.

This in itself isn’t bad, because I don’t think there is a definition for other literacies (traditional literacy or numeracy). What is different though, is that the stakeholders in these areas have an idea what the minimum level competency in these looks like– and this is where we are struggling. We don’t have that idea of what a bare-minimum science literate person looks like.

One of the things stopping us from a good idea has been that our (and this definitely includes me) focus on science literacy has been often based on our experiences. We need to remember that we are the LUCKY ones.

Last year in Ontario, 90,000 students started post-secondary (source). To put this in perspective in 2009, 173,000 wrote the grade 10 literacy test (Source EQAO), these are the students that would be 18 and ready to start post-secondary this past fall.

The reported 90,000 means 52% percent of Ontario students who did the EQAO test in 2009 entered post-secondary in 2011 (assuming that the 90,000 is all students who were 18 at time of enrolment).

Of this 52%, only a FRACTION is studying STEM at a University level. Waterloo had about ~3000 students enter Science and Engineering in 2011. In 2011, more students entered college than University (source) (the numbers in here do not jive with the other numbers I’ve found, this will be updated when I get definite numbers to base this calculations on).

The Waterloo Vital Signs Report (http://www.wrvitalsigns.ca/learning) also gives a better picture of what the core educational attainment level is in Ontario:

  • 20% of the population over 15 in Ontario have not completed high school in 2009
  • 51% of the population over 15 in Ontario have a post-secondary degree, diploma or certificate in 2008

The population of Ontario that is over 15 according to StatsCan is 9.9 Million (StatsCan 2006 survey). The population for 15-19 is approximately 832,000 (so of the 1.98 Million without a high school degree, really 1 Million are outside of high school age and degree-less). This number will likely rise slightly as the tail end of the population disappears (i.e. how many people over 60 went to high school?).

What I’m getting at, that its important that what our working definition of science literacy isn’t based on the assumption that everyone is going to or have had the same education opportunities we have had.

At this time its the exception for someone to study science in a post-secondary level, and we are a far way from this being a norm. Our focus should not be on making this the norm.


What science literacy isn’t:

  • fun (creating literacy can be fun, using skills can be fun, but having literacy can’t be described as fun)
  • making a generation of doctors / professionals
  • increasing post-secondary enrollment
  • domain specific knowledge (the earth revolves around the sun vs the sun revolves around the earth– doesn’t matter what you believe. What more important you know that when the sun goes down, it gets dark and cold).

What the bare minimum science literacy is:

an intuitive knowledge of science and its concepts.

This is inline with the idea of traditional literacy and numeracy. Literacy is not about knowing how sonnets are structured, but being able to read, comprehend and use words to survive. Advance literacy is being a playwright, or technical writer.

The base level for numeracy is being able to add, subtract and know that ten is a bigger value than three, and use this in their daily life (reading a themometer, measuring food). Advance numeracy is being able to, for example, identify and communicate the occurrence of exponential growth in a sub-section of a population.

With this in mind, science literacy beganes to look like the following:

  1. Being able to understand fundamental concepts you encounter daily and apply in new situations (Ex: If I drop an apple it falls; If I drop a glass, it will also fall)
  2. Being able to acknowledge domain experts, question them and understanding that your understanding and knowledge can change
  3. Communicate your understanding

With the above we have started to identify multiple areas of literacy– there might be more. A competency in any of these can lead to self-learning more, or increasing your level by your own initiative.

A person can be strong in one area, and weak in another, just like in any of the other literacies. In our case, a a professor can apply concepts, but can be a terrible communicator.

The important takeaway here is that literacy is not defined as meeting levels, but as meeting and surpassing bare-minimums. I believer we can define what it means to get on the evaluation scales for the above, but you can’t defining anything beyond the entry point. Anything beyond the minimum will be anecdotal and qualitative based.

Using tradionational literacy as an example:

  • If you can read, you are on the scale.
  • If you are an expert reader then its gets tricky to judge.

At this point its more important to get people to meet the easily defined minimums. Once people are at this level, they can become experts on their own.

Proficiency in any literacy leads to a better, smarter, more creative society.

An example from the media

The television show Breaking Bad is a great example of this literacy model. We have Walter, the traditionally trained scientist, and we have Jesse, the high school drop out who is making meth in his RV.

Walter clearly meets our first point, apply his knowledge in new situations. He is unable to question domain experts and communicate clearly his knowledge (you can argue a lot of this is due to his pride in his abilities).

Jesse is a high school drop out. He can’t communicate the science behind making meth, but he know how you have to heat it, or intuitively when a batch is done. He is strong in the areas that Walter is weak.

As the show progresses, Jesse is actually shown to be highly literate in science. He is able to learn from Walter, communicate what he needs, and grow his expertise. This is shown clearly by the tenth episode in season four. Jesse is able to make meth in a chemical factory setting independent of Walter, but also shows that he can’t do some of the very basic science that one expects you to master to be at that point.

Jesse strugles to make a batch of meth at first because he can’t find an acid he uses. When he asks the local chemists were the acid is, they laugh at him, because ‘any chemist worth their weight’ can synthesize it themselves. This makes them doubt Jesse’s abilities. Jesse isn’t a full domain expert because he depends on ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions. But he is able to show his expertise when given the tools he knows, and also demands the lab to be cleaned to a standard higher than the chemists have, because he understands how this impacts the end product.

Jesse models that you can be highly science literate, without having a strong science education and you can grow these literacies outside an academic setting.

Next steps

In order to move forward with increasing science literacy, we need to fully discover and identify the pillars and define what is the minimum competencies are for them. After this we can start the question of metrics and how to best address, design and create growth in science literacy of the general population.

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