Raising the Bar on Science Literacy: What do you know?

Raising the Bar on Science Literacy: What do you know?Americans seem to have a dim view on science education, according to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center.

STEM education in our nation is seen as average or even below average compared to other countries. Views may be partly based on how science education is portrayed in the media.

Generally, Americans have a very limited knowledge about science.  A recent clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live asked viewers about gluten.  Not one person who was on a gluten-free diet could actually explain what gluten is.

It doesn’t take very long at all to find gaps in understanding about vaccines, the use of pesticides, GMO crops or climate change.  A general consensus is that people can believe anything they want and that looking at evidence is unimportant.

Somehow we have lost sight of the fact that a disbelief in data does not invalidate data.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson says: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

The real problem is a lack of basic science literacy, not whether or not Americans can remember random science facts. Fewer than one in three college graduates can perform tasks such as interpreting a data table about blood pressure and physical activity.  Furthermore, 32 percent of Americans believe that vaccines should be optional. And 33 percent of Americans say they avoid eating gluten because it is bad for you. In the age of the Internet, you can find evidence (valid or not) to support almost any belief you want.

Fossil fuels protestor wearing multiple examples of items derived from fossil fuels

In all levels of K-12 STEM education, students no longer learn science as a body of facts.  Students are expected to analyze and interpret data. They must make logical arguments to support claims with evidence and understand how to see patterns and connection. Most importantly, students must be able to read and write for scientific understanding.

Recent STAAR data shows that we have room to grow in Texas.  Students do well when asked factual questions, but do poorly when asked to interpret and analyze data.



We want all students to be scientifically literate as adults. They must be able to do the following:

• Read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.
• Evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it.
• Pose and evaluate scientific arguments based on evidence and apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.

We can start as early as kindergarten to teach students to evaluate claims (predictions) with evidence and reasoning. A teacher could pose a question such as “Are all magnets the same strength?”  Students could then make a claim, such as “Bigger magnets are always stronger.”  They can collect evidence by experimentation and then use that evidence to evaluate the claim. They can then explain their reasoning.  It is important for us to help build both the language and content knowledge of all students in order for them to succeed in science.

What are your views on the importance of science literacy?  We’d like to know…

Teachers can register for Raising the Bar: Literacy Strategies in Science, being offered on February 18, 2016 at http://wms.hcde-texas.org .


About the Blogger
Lisa Felske is curriculum director for science at Harris County Department of Education. Her areas of expertise include integrating science with other disciplines and student misconceptions in science. She enjoys being a Girl Scout leader, reading way past her bedtime, and using the Oxford comma.

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