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An evidenced based framework for developing scientific literacyKaren Murcia
School of Education, Murdoch University
Clarifying what it means to be scientifically literate in our modern world, increasingly shaped and directed by science was the theoretical springboard for this doctoral research. The research took the view that citizens with a reasonable level of scientific literacy would be better able to participate in public debate, decision making processes and also to adapt lifestyle and work practices to meet the demands of a rapidly developing and changing world. In this contemporary context, scientific literacy was seen as a relevant and desired learning outcome for all citizens. In particular, it was an attribute both industry and the general community could reasonably expect from higher education's graduates as they would be potential experts in the community and could hold positions of influence in social debate. As such, this research aimed to identify and document the development of scientific literacy amongst a sample of 244 first year university students.
A framework for scientific literacy was generated based on a review of the literature, reflection on teaching and learning experiences and parallel research in numeracy. This framework and an associated set of levelled indicators were used to explore students' development of scientific literacy. The converging findings from the quantitative and qualitative components of this process challenged the assumption that development of the dimensions of scientific literacy was hierarchal in nature. It became evident that the participants' development of the construct was more complex in nature. Evidence suggested that the development of scientific literacy was the result of increased intertwining of knowledge and understandings in the three dimensions: key science ideas, the nature of science and the interaction of science with society. A Rope Metaphor was used to represent in a concrete medium, the weaving together of knowledge in order to think and act scientifically and captured realistically the complexity of developing scientific literacy observed through out this research.
Notwithstanding the focus on the development of scientific literacy amongst first year university students, the applicability of this research is intended to be much wider. It should clarify the meaning of scientific literacy within our contemporary context, increase the useability of the construct in teaching and learning and so has relevance at any level of education.
Achieving scientific literacy for all citizens requires educators to reflect on the meaning of the construct in modern times and re-think teaching and learning for its development. In this paper a framework and illustrative metaphor is presented as a vehicle for pursuing scientific literacy as an educational outcome. This contemporary perspective of scientific literacy was the result of evaluating a framework for scientific literacy as it was used in doctoral research which interrogated the development of the construct amongst first year university students. This paper discusses the structure of the framework and makes explicit underlying assumptions about the development of scientific literacy. It includes an overview of the doctoral research process that led to the proposal of a Rope Metaphor for the development of scientific literacy.
Scientific literacy requires some understanding of the more important scientific ideas which are relevant to everyday situations and will continue to have relevance throughout at least the next decade. This should be coupled with an understanding of the nature of science which includes understanding the values and assumptions inherent in the development of scientific knowledge (Lederman, 1983; Murcia & Schibeci, 1999).The third dimension of scientific literacy refers to the application of science in daily life, the way it is implemented and its effect on social and natural environments (Kolsto, 2000). Scientific literacy is the intersection of these three knowledge dimensions. For an individual to be scientifically literate they must have knowledge of the interaction of science with society, the nature of science and key scientific ideas and concepts. The way they act and thinking in order to make sense of the world in which they live requires a blending of these kno wledge dimensions. A review of the literature on scientific literacy led to the development of the framework of scientific literacy shown in Figure 1.
|Scientific literacy can be thought of as a blend of these three knowledge dimensions:
Being scientifically literate requires the confidence, interest and or disposition to use or put into action a blend of these knowledge dimensions for engaging with science in context. As such, it requires the ability to:
The framework displayed in Figure 1 did not suggest the specific science concepts needed by all citizens for scientific literacy, or the range of situations in which science could be used at the interface with society. Its aim was to clarify the type of knowledge, roles and abilities required to act scientifically in a contemporary context. It was anticipated that this framework for scientific literacy would clarify the construct and increase its utility both in the research process and in broader educational contexts.
The three dimensions of scientific literacy, science knowledge, nature of science and science and society are identifiable within Bybee's levels and contribute to defining the thresholds. The lower level thresholds are based on isolated science knowledge. Development up the thresholds requires a conceptual and procedural understanding of science. This involves some understanding of scientific method. The highest level of scientific literacy requires an understanding of the interaction between science and society. Scientific literacy at this level also includes the history, aims and general limitations of science. Bybee (1997, p.144) proposed the dimension indicators, displayed in Table 1, of scientific literacy at each level.
|Scientific and technological illiteracy||At this level the individual would not have the cognitive capacity to understand a science question or locate the question in the field of science.|
|Nominal scientific and technology literacy||An individual would understand a term, question or topic as scientific but demonstrate misunderstandings in the area. At this level the individual may offer naive explanations of phenomena.|
|Functional scientific and technological literacy||At the level of functional literacy the individual can use scientific vocabulary but generally out of context and without the conceptual richness of the discipline.|
|Conceptual and procedural scientific and technological literacy||At this level the individual would demonstrate a developing understanding of the way conceptual parts of the discipline relate to the whole. They would have a working understanding of the processes of scientific inquiry in the context of laboratory investigations or scientific experiments.|
|Multidimensional scientific and technological literacy||Scientific literacy at this level incorporates philosophical, historical, and social dimensions of the discipline. An individual at this level would demonstrate some understanding and appreciation for science as a whole and view the discipline as both a product and part of culture.|
The dimension indicators proposed by Bybee were expanded to give greater clarity to what was meant by the nature of science and its interaction with society. The expansion and use of indicators for this doctoral research was limited to Bybee's highest three levels as it was most likely due to the age and level of previous education that the participating first year university students would be generally at either the functional, conceptual and procedural or multidimensional level. An assumption evident in Bybee's and this research's expanded set of indicators was that scientific literacy at the lower Functional level was focussed on isolated scientific ideas. Development up the scale of scientific literacy required connections to be made between ideas and an understanding of science procedures. The highest multidimensional level of scientific literacy was distinguishable by knowledge about the nature of science and the interaction of science with society. This was a hierarchal model of the development of scientific literacy. It assumed development in the three dimensions was sequential; beginning with science ideas, followed by understandings about the nature of science which led into understandings about the interaction of science with society.
|Quantitative study||Qualitative study|
|1||Large scale study of Foundation Unit students||230||Pre Foundation Unit Questionnaire|
|166||Post Foundation Unit Questionnaire|
|2||Focus Group students||14||Pre Foundation Unit Questionnaire||Foundation Unit work samples|
Small group workshop discussion (videoed)
Written activities from workshop: what is science, draw a scientist and science in the news.
|3||14||Post Foundation Unit Questionnaire||Follow up interview with individuals (audio taped)|
Written activities (repeated with different news brief prompts): what is science, draw a scientist and science in the news.
|Large scale study |
of Foundation Unit
|Time out |
|Biological science only||55||6|
|Physical science only||45||2|
|Both physical and biological sc.||105||6|
The qualitative part of the research began in year 2 with the selection of the 14 focus group participants. The questionnaire was administered to students in three selected tutorial groups as these groups were led by tutors who had committed to assisting in the research process by collecting samples of students' work. Rasch analysis was used to determine the position of these students within the first large sample of participants. The focus group then represented the range of scores (logits) on the questionnaire and also the diversity of the first year student population in terms of gender, time out of school, course of enrolment and science background.
Focus group participants' foundation unit work samples were collected and analysed. The indicators of scientific literacy formed a checklist for analysing participants' data sources. Data in the form of written activities and videoed discussion was also collected from a 2 hour workshop. The next phase of the qualitative study was a follow up interview conducted in year 3 of the study. Approximately one year after their completion of the foundation unit Focus group participants were contacted and interviewed individually. At this time they completed the post questionnaire and repeated the written activities from the previous year.
The Rope Metaphor captures realistically the complexity of developing scientific literacy observed through out this research. This contemporary representation of the development of scientific literacy was informed by the work of Andrich (2002) in which he used a rope metaphor for describing the relationship between the component strands of the Western Australian Curriculum Framework (1998). He stated:
If one considers a very thick rope, which can of course be straightened to form a linear continuum, there are components that are made of much finer threads. These are woven together to form a higher level component, which could itself be a narrow (thin) rope. These relatively thin ropes are then woven together to form a thicker rope, and this process can be repeated until one has a rope thick enough for the purpose in hand (p.104).
Figure 2: A rope metaphor for scientific literacy
This metaphor represents scientific literacy as interwoven threads of multidimensional knowledge. Threads of knowledge, skills and understandings are attained by individuals in each of the dimensions. As individuals develop they construct further 'threads' of understanding that build onto what they know, thickening and strengthening their 'rope'. The continuum of developing scientific literacy would then be represented by the thickness of the rope. Scientific literacy at the lowest end of the continuum would include minimal understandings in all three dimensions and would be represented by a thin but multidimensional rope. The depth of understanding in each knowledge dimension would increase along the continuum towards the higher levels. The depth of development in each knowledge dimension would vary depending on the learning experiences, interests and contexts in which individuals' function. A scientifically literate individual would have threads of knowledge in each domain but may have greater depth in one of the dimensions. For example, as illustrated in Figure 3, a parliamentarian who is scientifically literate would have interwoven threads of understanding in all dimensions but due to their context, experiences and their continued learning they may develop greater depth in their understanding of the interaction of science and society. Alternatively, it could be expected that a science educator who is a general science practitioner, may have even depth of understanding across all dimensions of scientific literacy. Yet the specialist nature of a scientist's work, such as an industrial chemist, demands a depth of understanding about important science ideas, concepts and procedures. The depth of development in this dimension would be greatest but in order to be scientifically literate rather than only technically proficient they would also have some understandings about the nature of science and the interaction of science and society.
Figure 3: Cross Sections of Scientific Literacy
The Rope Metaphor captures realistically the complexity of developing scientific literacy observed through out this research. It highlights the importance of a holistic approach to developing students' scientific literacy and has a range of implications for teaching and learning in university's multidisciplinary foundation units and science based courses.
The outcomes of this process of interrogating university students' scientific literacy highlighted that the development of the construct was a complex, intertwining and multidimensional process. Analyses of participants' scientific literacy challenged the starting assumption that development in the construct's three knowledge dimensions was hierarchical. There was converging evidence from both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the research to suggest that the students' development of scientific literacy was linked to, and perhaps driven by, a context. It was evident that knowledge in only one dimension of scientific literacy was insufficient to empower students to think and act scientifically in order to make sense of the world in which they lived. In order for students to be scientifically literate, at any level, they had to have at least some minimal understanding of the interaction of science with society, the nature of science and key science ideas and concepts. In light of this, the rope metaphor proved to be a more effective and encompassing representation of the development of scientific literacy than the initial linear and hierarchal model used to inform the development of the indicators.
The Rope Metaphor highlights the importance of a holistic approach to developing students' scientific literacy and has a range of implications for teaching and learning in University's multidisciplinary foundation units and science based courses. Meeting these challenges requires a broader vision of university science education and could be reflected in student centred, context driven learning that highlights connections across disciplines, collaboration and inquiry skills.
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|Authors: Ms Karen Murcia, Lecturer, School of Education|
Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia
Please cite as: Murcia, K. (2006). An evidenced based framework for developing scientific literacy. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2006. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2006/murcia.html