Science literacy and “The Fear”

“Science literacy”. How often do we hear about how badly students (and the general public) need some? Educators know it’s not really about teaching people facts to give them a working knowledge in many fields. Check that- every sane person knows you can’t be an expert in everything. Science literacy is better thought of as learning to think scientifically- how to think critically and rely on evidence. And we might go a step more abstract, wanting people to have a familiarity with the process of modern science- how studies are performed, what peer-reviewed journals are, why some ideas can be trusted more than others.

I think there’s still another piece of this that doesn’t get enough attention. I think of it as “The Fear”. The Fear of dull and difficult science classes, of complicated mathematical calculations, of memorizing unfamiliar terms. I think it’s The Fear that steers people away from science programs on TV or books about science. They’re not sure why it’s interesting, but they damn well know it’ll be tedious.

Maybe you can teach a student the basic concepts of biology, and maybe you can even get that student to have a reasonable understanding of what constitutes scientific information. But if that student won’t touch anything sciencey with a ten-foot pole for the rest of their life, how much have you really accomplished?

Rather than feeling like I try to “hook” my students with something attention-grabbing so that I can get them to pay attention to the important stuff, I’ve always seen that goal as worthy in and of itself. At first, it was just because I wanted them to like what we were doing- after all, I loved the stuff- but now I see science “comfort” as a cornerstone of science literacy. If my students forget virtually everything I taught them about Earth science but are more willing to have their curiosity piqued by some science down the road, I’m not so sure I shouldn’t declare victory. A science comfortable student will be much more likely to acquire scientific information when they need it.

This is one of those things that I think come naturally for most educators, but might not get its time in the spotlight for acknowledgement. A lot of effort goes into designing activities to effectively teach concepts and skills. Maybe with a little justification that making things fun is serious business, spending time on designing science comforting experiences won’t seem like an indulgence, or even just an investment. It’s not the cherry on top- it might just be the dish that holds the sundae.


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