Science Literacy for the 21st Century

By Kelly Tabbutt

Increasingly, the ability to understand and critically analyze scientific information — what’s known as science literacy — is vital in daily life and decision making. Keep reading to learn about science literacy and its many uses in our lives.

A New Era

The current era is marked by rapid, significant, and previously unimaginable advancements in technology and research across scientific fields. This era is defined by dependence on advanced technologies, particularly information technology. The information age has exponentially expanded access to information, bringing with it increased expectations of awareness and proficiency. Now, more than ever, science literacy is vital in daily life and decision making.

What is Science Literacy?

Science literacy refers to competencies in science that range from basic comprehension to deep technical understanding. In general, science literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, discuss, and apply the scientific information you come across in daily life. There are two levels of science literacy competencies: comprehension and critical application.

Science literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, discuss, and apply the scientific information you encounter in daily life.

Fundamental Comprehension of Science

At the level of basic comprehension, science literacy is about having a fundamental awareness of past and present scientific research and discoveries, including technological and medical innovations. This level of science literacy revolves around asking questions, finding answers, and comprehending those answers.

Science literacy at the level of fundamental understanding involves being aware and observant enough of science to know what questions to ask about the world, events, human experiences, and research. It also involves knowing where to look to find the answers to these questions. Finally, it involves having the basic familiarity with methods and technical terms to understand the answers when you find them.

Critical Application of Science

Beyond the level of basic comprehension is a second level: the critical application of scientific thinking and discoveries. Science literacy centers on knowing how to evaluate the relevance and validity of scientific research and findings; reaching independent conclusions about the significance of scientific information; and applying those evaluations and conclusions to make informed decisions.

Science literacy at the level of critical application involves thinking critically, and applying reasonable skepticism to the answers you find to your science questions. It also involves synthesizing the information you find and reaching your own conclusions based upon critical evaluation of the relevance and validity of that information. Finally, it involves applying the information – in light of your conclusions – to make decisions.

Science Literacy for a New Era

Health, technology, and social science are three realms in which science literacy is proving important.

Science Literacy and Health

This new era is one of significant medical advances and significant health threats. Understanding the spread of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19, and the lifestyle and environmental factors contributing to non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, require a basic level of science literacy. Making decisions about diet, exercise, vaccination, and even more general decisions, such as which leaders and initiatives to support, all require understanding the science behind health threats and the viability and value of medical options.

Science Literacy and Technology

The advances today in information technology, such as computers and smartphones, and advances in transportation, space travel, and surveillance are astounding. These advances are reshaping human reality, including legal, political, and medical decisions. Science literacy is necessary to understand not only how these technologies work, but the arguments about their value and drawbacks, as well as the legal, political, and lifestyle adjustments that they bring.  

Science Literacy and Social Science

The principles of science literacy are familiarity with concepts, theories, and methods; synthesis and evaluation of information; and critical application. The connection between science literacy and natural sciences like physics seems obvious. However, the value of science literacy carries over to social sciences like political sciences and sociology. These principles are also vital to understanding and evaluating information such as political trends, or making sense of statistics.

Science literacy is essential to understanding political and sociological data as much as it is foundational to evaluating the data in scientific fields such as physics or biology.

Becoming Science Literate

Science literacy is a necessary skill for understanding the fundamental realities and concerns of the current era and for making informed decisions. BouJaoude (2002) developed a framework for science teaching with four components:

  • Knowledge of science;
  • Understanding the investigative nature of science;
  • Science as a way of knowing; and
  • The connection between science, technology, and society.

These four components serve as a framework for learning science literacy. Let’s discuss each in detail.

1. Knowledge of Science

Knowledge of science refers to familiarity with scientific concepts, laws and theories, and findings. It corresponds with the first level of fundamental comprehension. Introductory science textbooks and educational websites are great tools to build this competency.

Reading about science in the news or blogs, and using search engines or textbooks to understand terms, methods, or findings will also build this level of basic comprehension. For example, awareness of the basic premise of the law of gravity or the concept of matter is fundamental to understanding physics.

2. The Investigative Nature of Science

Understanding the investigative nature of science means is also related to the first level of science literacy and means focuses on scientific methods. Most basically, this means holding enough familiarity to know which methods should be used in which contexts.

Examining science writing or discussions with a focus on what methods were used to collect and analyze samples or data. Find the patterns between the type of data, the methods, and the findings that are produced. For example, when are statistics used? What size and type of sample was used?

3. Science as a Way of Knowing

Applying science as a way of knowing corresponds to the second level of science literacy: critical application. Science as a way of knowing is based ultimately on tangible proof, careful experimentation or analysis, cause and effect, objective, logical reasoning, and critical reflection.

The only way to develop this way of learning and seeing is through exposure by reading science writing or listening to discussions from reputable, knowledgeable sources. For example, think about the logical and causal connections made between vaccination and virus transmission.

4. The Interaction between Science, Technology, and Society

Making the connection between science, technology, and society also relates to the second level of science literacy. This is about seeing the interconnection between the three; understanding the impact each has on our lives; and applying our understanding to make better decisions. Doing these things requires critical reflection. When thinking about science and technology, also think about their interdependence and how they shape experiences and perceptions, societal norms, and social interactions. For example, how have smartphones reshaped our lives as individuals and social connections?

A Fundamental Skill

Today, science literacy is a fundamental skill. The major social, legal, and political battlegrounds today increasingly revolve around – and seek solutions – based in science. Further, at its core, science literacy is a way of thinking and acting informed by reason, evidence, critical evaluation, and meaningful application. This way of knowing and seeing should ideally inform your general approach to information and decision-making regardless of the topic.

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