“Scientific literacy is an urgent and important issue. Why should we care? The answer is simple: Our way of life and our survival are at stake.” – G. Wayne Clough, Secretary Smithsonian Institution

Achieving Scientific Literacy for All in the United States: Topic Overview

What is Scientific Literacy and Why is it important?

In the National Science Education Standards, scientific literacy is defined as the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity (1996). Therefore, when discussing scientific literacy, one is not concerned with being able to “do science," engaging and conducting in scientific experiments, but being able to use science to better understand the world. This definition shows that learning science is not just about memorizing facts, processes, and concepts but being able to apply them in real world situations. Scientific literacy allows a citizen to understand general scientific principles and issues that are addressed in various forms of media, healthcare, politics, etc. Robert Hazen states, “Scientific and technological issues dominate national discourse, from environmental debates on ozone depletion and acid rain, to economic threats from climate change and invasive species” (2002). When citizens are scientifically literate they are more likely to appreciate how these issues affect the world around them and make informed personal and civic decisions that relate to these scientific issues. Citizens that make more informed decisions allow our nation to compete globally with other nations in economics, education, healthcare, military, etc.

Scientific Literacy in the United States

After World War II, the United States became one of the leading nations in science, engineering, and technology as scientists and engineers made several gains in scientific research and science education. The Space Race during the Cold War led to many important improvements in science education and research as the United States and Soviet Union competed against each other to be the first in several space explorations. The Apollo missions to the moon played the biggest role in American science history during this time. Science practices have been in place for more than 400 years and have continued to expand as more research reveals new ideas and more possibilities for new science practices. At one time it was possible for an individual to comprehend the body of knowledge that encompassed the science field through education, books, and news media. However, as the body of science knowledge has expanded into several distinct fields, it has become harder for people to understand everything in detail. Educational institutions now struggle to provide students with proper programs to help them comprehend and understand this extensive body of scientific knowledge; which comes mostly from lack of funding. “Research and development is now a global enterprise fueled by more than $1 trillion of annual investment, and an estimated 1,200 exabytes of data were projected to be created in 2010” (Smithsonian Institute 2011). As the body of science knowledge continues to grow into new fields of research in the near future, many countries will continue to invest money in science education and research. It is important for leading nations to produce more scientifically literate people so that they can compete in this continued global arms race in science.

Achieving Scientific Literacy for All in the United States: Trend, Issue, or Both?

Scientific Literacy: The Debate Over its Meaning

Scientific literacy has been used since the 1950s to explain what the general public should know about science in order to be productive activists in national discourse. The debate lies in the decision over what the general public should know about science. The term has changed historically in its meaning as advances in science have been made since the late 1950s. Rudiger Laugksch gives a brief historical overview of the term in his paper on scientific literacy and describes it as being an "ill-defined and diffuse concept" (2000). Nonetheless, scientific literacy is a goal of science education and has been an issue that has captured the attention of many as science education continues to be reformed.

The Issue in the United States

Historically, scientific literacy was only a necessity for those that were pursuing a career in science. As the American society progresses to be more technologically enhanced and as healthcare and environmental issues become more prominent in American citizens’ lives, there is a need for all people to become more scientifically literate. Research from the National Science Foundation, shows that both national and international levels of scientific literacy among the general public are undesirably low for such a technologically driven society (Scearce 2007). A low level of scientific literacy is not just an issue for the general public, but also for those that are coming from institutions of higher education. Hazen notes in his article that an informal poll from Harvard University revealed that fewer than ten percent of graduating seniors could explain the reasoning behind seasonal temperature differences (2002). He also reveals that only half of the seniors who took a scientific literacy survey at George Mason University could identify the difference between an atom and molecule. Experts that study scientific literacy estimate that fewer than 7% of adults, 22% of college graduates, and 26% of those with graduate degrees are scientifically literate (Hazen 2002). Professor Jon Miller, an expert on measuring scientific literacy worldwide from Michigan State University, says that only 28 percent of Americans are scientifically literate (Smithsonian Institute 2011).

Other noteworthy statistics shared by the Smithsonian Institute in Increasing Scientific Literacy a Shared Responsibility:
  • The United States placed 17th on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment test given to 15-year-olds in the world’s 30 wealthiest nations to measure their ability to apply math and science knowledge in real-life contexts.
  • A 2009 national survey by the California Academy of Sciences indicated that only 59 percent of adults knew that early humans did not coexist with dinosaurs; only 53 percent knew how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun; only 47 percent could give an approximation of how much of the Earth’s surface is covered with water; and only 21 percent knew all three of these things.

Jeffery Kluger, senior writer on science topics for TIME magazine, states that America is endanger of becoming "the land of the dunderhead". His viewpoint on the low levels of scientific literacy revolve around the idea that the world is becoming so complex and full of false information that the American people do not know facts from fiction. Americans can quickly look up information on global warming, stem cells, energy efficiency, etc. online, but the problem comes from whether they are using credible sources. When citizens are subjected to tons of false information and hoaxes it is easy to see why they are not able to distinguish real science from pseudoscience.

In order for the American democratic process to function properly, the American people must work together to change these statistics to a higher number of individuals that are scientifically literate. As the number of scientific issues continues to rise in our democratic society (i.e. natural resources, energy conservation, healthcare issues), our educational system needs to produce more adolescents that are scientifically literate by the time they graduate (Scearce 2007).

The Issue of Achieving Scientific Literacy in Education

Scientific literacy is a major goal for science educators and other stakeholders that has been in the spotlight for reform over the past several decades. Standards, curriculum, and methods of teaching science have continued to change as advancements in science research remains an ongoing process. As with other content areas, science was first taught in a traditional way in which students were expected to learn selected facts and information about scientific process and discoveries. Later and currently, science education has switched to an inquiry process where students are led to explore scientific ideas through the nature of science similar to that which scientists use to make scientific discoveries. Educators, administrators, scientists, and other stakeholders have debated over which scientific ideas are most important for people to understand and which methods work best for producing scientifically literate people.

More recently, the National Research Council (NRC) has attempted to address the need for increasing the scientific literacy of Americans by changing the way that science is taught in schools across America. In the near future, the NRC will implement their new framework for K-12 science education into classrooms across the country. This framework includes three main dimensions: practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. Along with this framework, are the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were released for adoption in the Winter/Spring 2013. The goal of the NRC’s framework and the NGSS is for all students, by the end of the 12th grade, to have gained the necessary knowledge of the practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas of science and engineering in order to participate in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives, and to continue to be learners of science (Pratt 2012).

Addressing scientific literacy is definitely an issue that should be a major concern for educators, scientists, parents, media, administrators, and public institutions. The issue, as described above, lies within the fact that scientific literacy determines the economic gains that the United States has over other countries that are closing the gap or have already closed in on the United States in the past several years.

Possible Solutions for Addressing Scientific Literacy in the Classroom

G. Wayne Clough points out an important question in his report, "Increasing Scientific Literacy A Shared Responsibility", that as science research continues to add more to the field of science who is going to be responsible for helping the general public understand this blitz of new scientific advances (Smithsonian Institute 2011). He continues to state that this problem will be more easily addressed if all stakeholders communicate together and take responsibility for enhancing the scientific literacy of America’s people. The focus of this wiki will be on how teachers can enhance the scientific literacy of their students in their classrooms. With the implementation of the NGSS many science teachers will begin struggling to find ways to incorporate literacy concepts, assignments, and instruction into their respective coursework and curricula. Teachers’ main focus should be concerned with finding material that expands and deepens their students’ scientific literacy over their lifetimes and not just during their years of school (National Education Standards 1996).

Suggested Strategies –
    • Four Strategies Suggested by Maria Grant and Diane Lapp (2011)
      • Identify science topics that interest students and that are part of the curriculum and integrate them into lessons. Also, allow students to suggest topics that they think will make interesting topics for discussion.
      • Allow students to engage in reading research. Allow them to discover the process of science on their own, while facilitating them along the way.
      • Use reading strategies to help students read like scientists.
      • Show students how to evaluate data (i.e. finding credible sources of data) so that they can make better decisions and empower them to make decisions about how they interact with the world.
    • Writing-to-learn and Writing-to-demonstrate-knowledge assignments - Writing-to-learn strategies involve students using high-levels of thinking skills to produce informal genres of writing that help them think through key concepts and main ideas. Writing-to-demonstrate-knowledge assignments involve students synthesizing and explaining learned concepts in more formal genres of writing. Examples of both of these are provided on the Michigan Science Teachers Association writing across the curriculum document that is linked above.
      • Having students write meaningful genres of writing to an authentic audience can increase scientific literacy.
        • Science Journalism - Students write science news articles about current news topics using information found in various credible sources.
          • "Science Literacy through Science Journalism" or SciJourn - This paper discusses the National Science Foundation grant project to increase teachers' understanding of science journalism writing assignments and how they can be used to increase scientific literacy.
    • Promoting scientific thinking skills through inquiry ---Using the 5E model for inquiry based lesson planning. See the following pdf for more on the 5E instructional model:
      • Research shows that when inquiry learning cycles are used students’ thinking skills are enhanced; therefore, increasing scientific literacy (Deming, O’Donnell, & Malone 2012)
      • This component of STEM teaching allows students to begin questioning science again. With the push to memorize facts to pass tests in the past, the curiousity of students has been missing or minimal in science education. Children are born with a natural curiosity about the world and this should continue in their science educational experience (Kuchment 2013).
    • This Literacy in Science Wiki offers several reading, writing, and other instructional strategies that can contribute to improving science literacy.
    • Field Trips to science museums, interactive science exhibits, national and state parks, etc.
      • These opportunities get students engaged and involved in the curriculum in a fun way, therefore, making science more popular in their eyes. Kuchment posts on her blog that by making STEM fun is a major ingredient making it grow in popularity among citizens (2013).
      • Money and transportation can sometimes be an issue when it comes to field trips. I suggest taking the class outside and into the school yard to make observations about the natural world.
        • Ideas that I use or plan to use in my Environmental Science and Physical Science classes:
          • Bottle Biology - Students can make bottle ecosystems and much more by using bottles and organisms found in the schoolyard to make observations about ecosystems and processes that occur within ecosystems. I currently use many of the ideas on this website and from the book that they offer in my Environmental Science class. Students enjoy being able to explore organisms outside and add them to their ecosystems. I have them record observations in their science journals and collect data for certain activities.
          • The National Science Center Mobile Discovery Centers - This is a FREE opportunity that is offered through the National Science Center. They bring everything to your school to provide your students with interactive science demonstrations that connect to many of the Physical Science curriculum standards. I have not used this program yet, but used it for my proposal for this class. I am proposing this idea to my department head and hope to have success with it next year!

Download a proposal focused on this trend/issue in education here:

Annotated Bibliography

Deming, J.C., O'Donnell, J.R., & Malone, C.J. (2012). Scientific Literacy: Resurrecting the Phoenix with Thinking Skills. Science Educator, 21(2), 10-17.This scholarly journal article explores the connection between scientific thinking skills and scientific literacy.

Grant, M & Lapp, D. (2011). Teaching Scientific Literacy. Educational Leadership, 68(6). Retrieved from This article explains the importance of scientific literacy and gives four actions that educators can use to promote literacy in science classrooms.

Hazen, R. (2002). Why Should You Be Scientifically Literate. Bioscience. This article defines scientific literacy and provides three different arguments to why it is important.

Kluger, Jefferey (2011, July 11). Space Science After the Shuttle: Are America's Smartest Days Behind Her? TIME Magazine. Retrieved from,8599,2082213,00.html This viewpoint article shows the author's opinion on how scientific literacy is decreasing in America due to Americans exposure to false information and hoaxes dealing with science topics.

Kohnen, A. (2013). Content Area Teachers as Teachers of Writing. Teaching/Writing: The Journal of Writing Teacher Education, 2(1), 29-33. This scholarly journal article explore the idea of using science journalism in the science content area to improve scientific literacy.

Kuchment, A. (2013, January 8). Why America’s Kids Need New Standards for Science Education. Retrieved from This blog explains Michael Wysession's, a member of the leadership team for the writing of the Next Generation Science Standards, viewpoint of why the new NGSS are so important to the success of science education in America.

Kuchment, A. (2013, May 1). Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists. Retrieved from This blog post offers some advice to educators and parents on how to inspire children to become interested in science education and science careers.

Laugksch, R. C. (2000). Scientific literacy: A conceptual overview. Sci. Ed., 84: 71–94. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-237X(200001)84:1<71::AID-SCE6>3.0.CO;2-C This scholarly journal articles explores the concept of scientific literacy by looking at its meanings, history, how it's measured, and why it is important.

National Science Education Standards. National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996. This online book of the NSES provide educators with the vision for the NSES and present the guidelines for science education that will allow for production of scientifically literate students.

Pratt, Harold (2012). The NSTA Readers’ Guide to a Framework for K-12 Science Education Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. National Science Teachers Association. This readers' guide provides educators with an overview of the new framework that is part of the Next Generation Science Standards.

Next Generation Science Standards (2013). The Need for New Science Standards. This website provides information on the background and needs for the new science standards

Polman, J., Newman, A., Farrar, C., & Saul, E.W. (2012). Science Journalism: Students learn lifelong science literacy skills by reporting the news. The Science Teacher (January), 44-47. This journal article describes how students write science journal articles similar to professional journalists to show their understanding of current science news in an attempt to increase scientific literacy.

Scearce, Carolyn (2007). Scientific Literacy. This scholarly article defines scientific literacy and its importance to the United States. It also looks at ways in which levels of scientific literacy can be increased.

Smithsonian Institute (2011). Increasing Scientific Literacy A Shared Responsibility. This report provides a proposed plan by the Smithsonian Institute to increase scientific literacy in America with the help of several stakeholders.

Download a proposal focused on this trend/issue in education here: