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editor's corner

Promoting Scientific Literacy in the Science Classroom

The Science Teacher—May/June 2023 (Volume 90, Issue 5)

By Ann Haley MacKenzie

Scientific literacy means understanding how science is done, what is science versus non-science, and how to evaluate claims we are exposed to on a daily basis. Without scientific literacy, we are unable to make informed decisions about crucial issues, such as climate change, toxic waste disposal, the space program, urban sprawl, genetic engineering, pollution, and myriad other issues facing people all over the world.

Scientific literacy is not an innate ability—it must be learned through lessons, practice, and engaging in activities providing a sound science education. It is imperative that we, as high school science teachers, emphasize providing our students opportunities to gain, reinforce, and apply the skills necessary to be a scientifically literate individual.

For students, scientific literacy means knowing how scientific knowledge is created, the limitations of scientific knowledge, and the ongoing process of scientific inquiry. This appreciation of science is especially critical in this era of misinformation, where scientific facts and theories are often distorted or misrepresented for various reasons.

Scientific literacy enables students to evaluate scientific information through a critical lens as they grow into adults. They can pose such questions as: Are the claims being made credible? What is the evidence present to support the claim? What reasoning has been used to justify the claim? Is the evidence reliable and was it gained in a rigorous manner? Is the claim being manipulated or misrepresented?

Challenges to promoting scientific literacy

Despite the importance of scientific literacy, promoting it in high schools can be challenging. There is a significant gap between the scientific knowledge high school students possess and the scientific knowledge required for scientific literacy. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 22 percent of 12th-grade students in the United States are proficient in science, leaving the majority of students without the foundational knowledge for scientific literacy. As with any standardized tests, questions can be raised about the relevance of the NAEP data, but students need to demonstrate their prowess with science in some sort of reliable and valid manner.

Even in today’s science classrooms, too much emphasis is put on memorization instead of on fostering critical thinking skills. Are students challenged enough to make their thinking visible to their science teachers? Or, are students generally just filling in guided notes with words that have no meaning or relevance to the average teenager?

Promoting scientific literacy in high school science classrooms requires significant resources (time, money, and an appropriate ratio of students to teachers.) Inequities between school districts exist in ways that are untenable. Many districts lack up-to-date science facilities, safety equipment, science equipment, and science-related technology. Investing in science education resources not only benefits students but also has broader societal benefits. A well-educated and scientifically literate populace can contribute to technological advancements, economic growth, and improved public health.

Science is not an isolated subject—it intersects meaningfully with all of the other disciplines in powerful ways. Integrating science with math, social studies, language arts, art, and music, can help students appreciate the relevance of science in their everyday lives and help them develop critical thinking skills in multiple areas. For example, students can learn about climate change in social studies classes, the physics of force and motion in math classes, and how certain authors were instrumental in changing environmental policies, such as Charles Dickens, during their language arts classes. In art class, students can examine Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and determine if it represents an astronomical phenomena that was present during the time he painted this iconic painting.

Strategies for encouraging scientific literacy

Incorporate real-world examples: Incorporating real-world examples such as news articles or scientific studies can help students understand the way science intersects with their daily lives and demonstrates the impact of scientific research on society. This relationship with various media types can help students to better understand scientific concepts and foster their curiosity and creativity around scientific phenomena.

Encourage critical thinking: Critical thinking is an essential component of scientific literacy. It enables individuals to evaluate claims and evidence. We can encourage critical thinking by asking our students to evaluate scientific studies, theories, or claims made by public figures. By doing so, our students can better understand the scientific process and develop analytical skills.

Provide hands-on learning opportunities: Hands-on experiments, activities, labs, field trips, and computer simulations can make science more accessible for all of our students and can reinforce abstract concepts and enhance scientific literacy. Science classes should focus on doing science rather than just reading about it.

Use many kinds of media resources: Using a plethora of media resources, such as podcasts, blogs, interactive websites, or videos can help reinforce key concepts and provide additional perspectives on scientific issues. Additionally, these resources can be tailored to the different ways our students process information, experiences, and visual resources as well as accommodate students with various identities and diverse backgrounds.

Address misconceptions: Misconceptions about key science concepts can lead to major misunderstandings in science. We can provide an environment where misconceptions are brought to the forefront and addressed in an experimental, interactive way in order for conceptual change to occur. As a result, students gain skills in evaluating the information they encounter on a daily basis and look for sound reasoning and a scientific basis behind the information.

Collaborate with community resources: When we collaborate with community resources, such a local universities, community colleges, scientific industries, scientific organizations, zoos, science museums, botanical gardens, and professional scientific societies, we give students the opportunity to have mentors, work with scientific experts, and be exposed to resources that go far beyond the four walls of the science classroom. This exposure can change the course of some of our students’ lives by encouraging them to pursue a scientific or technological career.

Creating a culture of making student thinking visible: Through questioning and active class discussions, we can see what our students are thinking, pondering, and wondering. We can look for gaps in their reasoning and pose thought-provoking questions or comments that help students gain better insights into the world of science. It is imperative we give our students the opportunity to say what is on their minds, to pose questions to the entire class and us, and to espouse what they are thinking after a lesson is completed in a more meaningful way that just the perfunctory exit slip that may or may not really provide evidence of their thinking.

If we as a nation are to continue to move forward in discoveries, advances, and creative endeavors surrounding science and technology, we must provide our students ample opportunities to enhance their scientific literacy. They are our future. They will be making vital decisions on key issues. They will be weighing the pros and cons on topics facing their communities, states, and country. We want them to be scientific literate for the sake of the health of themselves, our nation, and the world.

Ann Haley Mackenzie ( is Editor of The Science Teacher.

Advocacy Interdisciplinary Literacy High School

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