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An evidenced based framework for developing scientific literacy

Karen Murcia
School of Education, Murdoch University
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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.


Introduction

Science is an essential tool for making sense of the world in which we live and contributes to the informed decisions needed for future development and lifestyles to be sustainable. Achieving a sustainable future requires input from communities who have an understanding of how science informs their thinking and empowers them to make informed decisions. As such, it is essential education practices are analysed and redefined to ensure all educated members of society are scientifically literate. Science education can not focus solely on the preparation of students for higher level studies or the preparation of future scientists. A contemporary education should enable all citizens to participate in public debate, decision-making processes and to adapt lifestyle and work practices to meet the demands of a rapidly developing and changing world shaped by science. It is desirable for individuals to have a general, broad and useful understanding of science that contributes to their competence and disposition to use science to meet the personal and social demands of their life at home, at work and in the community (Murcia, 2005). This perspective of a scientifically literate person is consistent with the definition used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2002) in their international assessment program (PISA). They define scientific literacy as "the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity." It is essential in our modern world increasingly shaped and directed by science that scientific literacy be a learning outcome aimed for in science education. Essentially that all citizens should have a fundamental understanding of some key science concepts but just as importantly that they appreciate the nature of the discipline; particularly its aims, limitations and interaction with society.

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.

A framework for scientific literacy

Common ideas and issues can be traced through the literature on the development of scientific literacy as an educational concept. Scientific literacy can be viewed as multidimensional and a composite, in some way, of science: concepts and ideas, the nature of science and the interaction of science and society (Bybee, 1999; Fensham, 2002; Hurd, 1997; Laugksch, 2000; Solomon, 2001; Millar, 1983; Norris & Philips, 1999).

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:
  • Nature of science;
  • Interaction of science and society; and
  • Enduring and important scientific terms and concepts.
Scientific literacy is clearly about KNOWING but it is also about A WAY OF THINKING and ACTING.

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:

  • Use science as a tool for inquiry or discovery;
  • Use science for learning, informing or contributing to problem solving; and,
  • Critically reflect on the use or role of science in context.

Figure 1: A framework of scientific literacy

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.

Levels and indicators of scientific literacy

Indicators consistent with this framework of scientific literacy were generated to illustrate levels of developing scientific literacy. Bybee's (1997) perspective of the development of scientific literacy was used to inform the initial development of indicators. Bybee's levels were based on a threshold model that assumes degrees of scientific literacy are continuously distributed within the population. He proposed that general thresholds could be identified, which indicate an individuals overall scientific literacy. These levels of scientific literacy represent a continuum along which an individual can develop for a lifetime. However, it is assumed an individual's level of scientific literacy may change depending on the context, issue or topic rather than simply being scientifically literate or illiterate.

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.

Table 1: Levels and dimension indicators of scientific literacy

LevelDescriptionDimension indicators
Scientific and technological illiteracyAt 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.
  • Identifies terms, questions as scientific.
  • Demonstrates misconceptions.
  • Has naive explanations.
  • Shows minimal understanding
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.
  • Uses scientific vocabulary
  • Defines terms correctly
  • Memorises special responses
  • Understands only a specific need or activity
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.
  • Understands conceptual schemes of science.
  • Understands procedural knowledge and skills of science.
  • Understands relationships among parts and whole of science.
  • Understands organising principles, disciplines and processes of science.
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.
  • Understands the place of science among other disciplines
  • Knows the history of science.
  • Knows the nature of science.
  • Understands the interactions between science and society

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.

The study

Aims

The aim of this research was firstly to use the framework and indicators to interrogate and document the development of scientific literacy amongst a sample of first year university students. A second aim was to evaluate the underlying assumptions of the framework and indicators and consider their usefulness for interrogating students' development of scientific literacy.

Context

The study was focussed at the university level as scientific literacy was identified as not only a desirable characteristic of all citizens but also an attribute industry and the general community would reasonably expect from higher education's graduates. A university foundation unit was identified as a relevant context for the research as it was multidisciplinary in nature and open to, but not necessarily taken by all first year students. Foundation units are designed to introduce students to University study skills and to provide them with an interdisciplinary perspective of the world in which they live and their own learning. The particular foundation unit focussed on for this research was an interesting context for the interrogation of students' development of scientific literacy as it had as its central theme the development of self-sufficient and stable ecosystems; and, importantly, it was not intended as a specialist science unit but rather an introduction for all students to the issues faced by science in a continually evolving technological world community.

Sample

Data collection occurred over a three year period and involved a total of 244 participants. The number of participants in each phase of the research is summarised in Table 2.

Table 2: Overview of research phases and activities

YearSampleNo. of
participants
Quantitative studyQualitative study
1Large scale study of Foundation Unit students230Pre Foundation Unit Questionnaire
166Post Foundation Unit Questionnaire
2Focus Group students14Pre Foundation Unit QuestionnaireFoundation Unit work samples
Small group workshop discussion (videoed)
Written activities from workshop: what is science, draw a scientist and science in the news.
314Post Foundation Unit QuestionnaireFollow 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.

Participants' background

Information was collected on gender, school leaver or mature age (2 or more years since left school), post compulsory science subjects studied and university course enrolled in. It should be noted that the foundation unit used as a context for this study tended to attract students with a science background and or enrolled in a science related course. This would probably be due to the science themes presented in the unit. Table 3 summarises the background information provided on the questionnaires by the participants.

Table 3: Participants' background

CategorySample
sub-group
Large scale study
of Foundation Unit
participants (n)
Focus group
participants (n)
GenderFemales12410
Males1064
Time out
of school
Mature age523
School leaver12711
Unspecified510
Course
enrolled in
Science based1347
Non-science917
Unspecified50
Science
background
No science250
Biological science only556
Physical science only452
Both physical and biological sc.1056

Data sources

The interrogation of scientific literacy amongst first year university students enrolled internally in the foundation unit was contributed to by both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The quantitative component was a questionnaire administered both pre and post unit to all students enrolled internally. The questionnaire contained two sources of information about students' scientific literacy. The first was a series of three open questions that required students' to engage with a science news paper brief. The nature and criticalness of their engagement was determined from the responses to these open questions. The second source was the 10 item Nature of Science Likert scale, which was analysed using the Rasch model. Both tasks were analysed separately and the results were used to build a composite picture of participants' developing scientific literacy.

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.

Findings

The extensive and detailed findings from this study can be found in Murcia (2006). The findings provide converging evidence about the development of scientific literacy amongst first year university students. Following the Focus Group participants over two years provided insights into the response patterns observed in the large scale administering of the questionnaire. The process generated a greater depth of understanding about the development of scientific literacy and highlighted a range of implications for teaching and learning at the University level.

Discussion

This study suggested that the development of scientific literacy was far more complex in reality than the originally proposed hierarchal levels and indicators. The converging sources of information provided by the quantitative and qualitative components of this study suggested that scientifically literate individuals drew on a blended body of knowledge that included an understanding of the social context, the values and assumptions inherent in science and key understandings of fundamental science ideas and concepts. This ability and disposition to think and act scientifically in order to problem solve or make sense of a situation required parallel development in the three dimensions. It was the blending of these understandings, at any level, that empowered individuals to choose and use science for making sense of the given task or context. Evidence from this research suggested that the development of scientific literacy was the result of increased intertwining of knowledge and understandings in the three dimensions, which are key science ideas, the nature of science and the interaction of science with society. A Rope Metaphor (Figu re 2) represents in a concrete medium, the weaving together of knowledge in order to think and act scientifically.

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

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

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.

Conclusion

Describing the dimensions of scientific literacy separately as science ideas and concepts, nature of science and the interaction of science with society could suggest clear divisions but this research shows that this is not the case. An individual's scientific literacy in any given situation is a blended understanding of science concepts, the nature of science and the interaction of science and society. In order to develop scientific literacy science curricula should be based on fundamental concepts developed in a socially meaningful context. Time should be given so students can meaningfully engage, practise ideas and skills; and then reflect on their learning. The teaching and learning goal should be to develop outcomes that are meaningful and useful to all individuals through out their lives. Conceptualising and representing the construct through the rope metaphor would suggest that the development of scientific literacy is dependent on teaching and learning experiences that provided opportunities for integrating knowledge from the three dimensions. The interaction of knowledge from these dimensions is an integral part of the development of scientific literacy and requires that students are provided with teaching and learning experiences that are holistic in nature and driven by socially relevant contexts.

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.

References

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Murcia, K. (2005). Science in the newspaper: A strategy for developing scientific literacy. Teaching Science, 51(1).

Murcia, K. & Schibeci, R. (1999). Primary student teachers' conceptions of the nature of science. International Journal of Science Education, 21(11), 1123-1140.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2002). Scientific Literacy. Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). http://www.pisa.oecd.org/science/def.html [Editor: not found 8 Aug 2006, see Chapter 3 in http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/46/14/33694881.pdf]

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Authors: Ms Karen Murcia, Lecturer, School of Education
Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia
Email: k.murcia@murdoch.edu.au

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


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