A 21st Century Approach to Measuring Scientific Literacy

Scientific literacy is a crucial, if ill-defined and sometimes misunderstood, concept in modern scientific discourse. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”

Though exploration may be in our nature, it appears that, with regard to scientific literacy, it is not in our nature to agree on what it is we should be exploring, or why. Most scholarship surrounding the idea of scientific literacy tends to frame it as a life “need” rather than as a life “tool.” This is a paternalistic belief that overtly and unnecessarily ties scientific literacy to formal science education.

Perhaps, if we consider that we are explorers not because of some cosmic predisposition towards seeking understanding of the world around us, but rather because we seek to fulfill individual needs, we may be better equipped to both understand scientific literacy and meaningfully measure it. With this in mind, Arck Interactive has worked with the Institute for Learning Innovation and the National Science Foundation to re-conceptualize our understanding of what it means to be scientifically literate. This partnership led to the creation of a new framework to use as the basis of our unique platform for measuring scientific literacy.

What is scientific literacy?

By its broadest common definition, scientifically literacy refers to the ”knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity, [as well as] meaning that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences” (National Education Standards, 1996, p. 22). This framework relies on the notion that scientific knowledge gained in the classroom is the foundation for scientific literacy. In this way, it greatly undervalues the informal experiences that contribute to an individual’s general scientific understanding.

It is incorrect to assume most scientific learning occurs in the classroom. In fact, evidence supports the notion that most science learning occurs outside of school. Individual needs, interests and realities resulting in diverse, often idiosyncratic science knowledge and understandings motivate personal learning. As such, the common definition fails to accommodate the very rapidly changing nature of where and why people learn STEM in the 21st century and the diversity of outcomes that an ever-expanding set of learning modalities and motivations afford.

In order to accommodate the changing nature of STEM, we need a new framework for capturing the spectrum of knowledge, beliefs, and attributes that the scientific community identifies as significant contributors to science literacy. The goal of creating this new framework is to raise new possibilities for evaluating public science opinion, in a way that promises to increase public engagement in science, beyond what is conventionally possible. Rather than trying to define and narrow our idea of scientific literacy, we should fully embrace for the first time the true complexity and nuance of science literacy.

Our traditional understanding of scientific literacy rests on the idea that a person should have a base level of knowledge regarding scientific facts in order to achieve literacy. However, an ability to recite facts does not provide a complete view of one’s capability for scientific thought or reasoning. The new science literacy framework presented here is structured along four interacting but semi-independent domains: 1) general science knowledge; 2) self-defined areas of science knowledge and expertise; 3) attitudes and beliefs related to science; and 4) the skills and competencies necessary to participate in science-related pursuits and discussion, including measures of modes of science thinking.

How can we measure scientific literacy?

Rather than a single, rigid, essentially dichotomous determination of science literacy – essentially yes or no, we seek to develop a tool that organizes individuals along a series of continua of literacy. A tool that most importantly, provides creates cultural value around science, providing the public with feedback about their current standing within each domain and recommendations for how to improve that standing.

According to Neil Degrasse Tyson, “People like it when they understand something that they previously thought they couldn’t understand. It’s a sense of empowerment.” With our free-choice learning tool, we seek to empower the public by providing them with immediate and personalized feedback. The platform allows users to apply scientific methodologies to everyday projects in a gamified environment that rewards progress with badges, science related products and discounts on memberships to many scientific institutions, encouraging them to continue their self-led learning experience. This tool will raise new possibilities for evaluating public science opinion, in a way that promises to increase public engagement in science.

Arck Interactive’s new scientific literacy tool can be readily utilized by a broad public, including students and teachers, within a multitude of learning contexts to provide a much more nuanced understanding of individual scientific literacy than previously thought possible. We envision this project as a full-blown community platform with groups for specific scientific domains, activity feeds, profiles, messaging, and notifications. The applications for this knowledge are vast, empowering our users within the general public and the scientific community to design a roadmap that will help us set sail to the stars.

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