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Science literacy and the school librarian

Peter Macinnis

I am an old science teacher who now writes full-time, mainly about science. In a varied career as teacher, administrator, museum educator and writer, my highest aim has always been to develop the understanding of science, both at a public level and a school level.

I am concerned by all sorts of culture, and the values of science and science literacy are right up there in my cultural Pantheon. According to the OECD,

Scientific literacy is 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.

That fits with what I understand. It agrees with what science education says, but how useful is it? I suspect that it is like saying 'there's Mount Olympus – go climb it!' when we should be handing out climbing boots and showing people how to tie the laces, before explaining what a crampon is. As in so many things, we need to walk before we run.

Still, we need to have a clear idea of the route we will follow up that mountain, to choose the key places along the way and to know what alternatives are available. To scientists, scientific literacy involves possessing a scientific vocabulary, understanding the processes by which scientific enquiry takes place, and having a grasp of the basic concepts and principles. It need not be our aim to get everybody to the summit, but they should get to a decent altitude, and have the chance to go on up, should they wish.

Adopted by practising and practical teachers, scientific literacy is often about getting students to read, understand and view critically something written about science. It may also involve writing about science, this leads to vocabulary, processes and concepts.


Some years ago, I did some work for a dictionary project. I identified around 5,000 words of technical science that students need and may not recognise. Consider the number of dinosaur names known to a seven-year-old, or footballers' names known to a 12 year old. We just need the right packaging, and maybe a few word attack skills, showing them how to identify Greek and Latin roots.

This is always a problem area – when I was a lad, I was told that 'boys who do Physics don't do Latin', but luckily I had acquired enough by then. Most science teachers lack training in the classics, and teachers of English would be unaware of the range of words science students need to know, though a look at the indexes of a couple of textbooks will make the problem clearer.


Processes of science are a challenge, because the textbooks all refer to 'the scientific method'. Some years back, when I started looking at how scientists work, I found seven modes of enquiry: controlled experiments, interpretation, fraud, fiddling, speculation, polemic and pseudo-science. Not all of those are legitimate, but they are things scientists and alleged scientists really do.

When students are brought up on the hypothesis/crucial experiment model of science, they miss a great deal. Under fiddling, for example, I include data snooping, where you assemble the data, look for a pattern, then try to see if there is any logical reason why there should be a pattern. If there is, then the scientist may be onto something.


Concepts and principles, the big ideas of science, are probably the hardest part. Scientists rarely stop to think just what assumptions they are making, because it is second nature to them that energy is neither created nor destroyed, that pressure is transmitted equally in all directions, that matter must be made up with atoms. They forget that much of science is profoundly counter-intuitive, at least to their students who view things in a certain physical scale and a certain time frame.

Ask students why rockets move forward, and they will probably relate it to a swimmer pushing off from the end of a pool, because that is the intuitive view. In 1920, the New York Times published a scathing attack on Robert Goddard, a foolish professor of physics who was planning to send rockets into space, where they would not fly, because there was nothing to push against! On July 17, 1969, when the first humans to land on the moon were almost on the surface, the paper published a retraction.

I write mainly about the history of science, because I am fascinated with the ways people have discovered things. I like to share the stories and they make the science come alive. One little yarn like the criticism of Goddard can start a whole new train of thought, and put young people in the same sort of puzzle that Newton faced when he came up with that formula about every action brings about an equal and opposite reaction (or why you don't fire an elephant gun while standing on a skateboard). The trouble is most of that is higher-order stuff!

So what are the big ideas of science? I state some in my SPLATS (Science Principles, Laws, Assumptions, Theories and Something). I decided my SPLATS would be limited to 160 characters – that forced me to keep them simple, but I allow myself to write cascades that follow on in a logical way. My original idea was that teachers could put them on bits of cardboard and splat them on the lab walls, but there are other uses as well – I just don't have the right packaging, yet, but I am working on it. Look at the models and filch them or write your own.

If science literacy is supposed to bring about people with a command of science, what can librarians do about it, and should they do anything at all? The modern curricula are entirely inappropriate for the majority of student teachers, but I believe I acquired 90% of the science I now know after I had graduated and started teaching. Science teachers are often overloaded with safety, assessment and other administrative requirements.

The Web is there to help, so I posed a question to several e-mail lists, asking what you understand by 'science literacy'. The responses were varied. One respondent referred me to a list of 21st century skills which include basic, scientific, economic, technological and visual literacies, and it struck me that we scientists may be narrowing in a little too much. There are a lot of literacies out there, and most of them come back to being able to think critically in an informed way. Even multicultural literacy is on the list, and my favourite, economic literacy, which I define as the ability to recognise that economic rationalism is the opposite of rational economics.

One strand of responses referred to advertisements for miracle water with amazing curative and restorative powers - what quacks have always sold to the gullible. A good proportion of my correspondents believe that the ability to see through such claims should come from scientific literacy. A society falling for such blandishments cannot be scientifically literate.

A scientifically literate person will not try to reconcile religious views with evolution. One friend tells me this is like trying to reconcile apples and William of Orange. Sadly, all too many supposedly scientifically literate people are unable to put their finger on the flaw in creationism, especially when it is served up in the guise of intelligent design.

Others raised the popularity of astrology, even today, but then one writer introduced a more interesting note: the question of metalanguage, where scientists use words like 'mass' and 'velocity' in special ways, as well as a variety of special notations (chemical symbols and measurement units and their abbreviations among them).

One simplistic response from the library might be to provide more books that cover scientific topics. Dan Brown's Angels and Demons has an appalling assertion about the force of gravity at 60,000 feet being 30% less than on the ground (try 0.3%!), and he has no idea of the forces involved in parachuting. Most exciting fiction is only exciting because it refuses to be bound by the harsh realities of science: see Matthew Reilly or most films.

That leaves a few options: popular science books that provide a good grounding and popular science journals, but each of these has drawbacks. There is a severe lack of good science material that both entertains and illuminates, and we are especially short of material which inspires students to go out and enquire, emulating David Attenborough and his camera people who capture fascinating footage.

Where are today's versions of J. B. S. Haldane, Lewis Thomas, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Peter Medawar, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond and Primo Levi? Authors who can draw our young people into science by informing them and sending them outside to discover for themselves? I think one or two of those authors are still alive, but there are few replacements rising.

That leaves us with the science journals. Among scientists, you will find many references to New Scientist and Scientific American, usually in the context that being able to read these is the sign of a mature scientific literacy. You will find many practising scientists who use these journals, especially Scientific American, to stay abreast of other fields. This is the real challenge of scientific literacy, that nobody can truly be said to stay abreast of it all, any more.

New Scientist is probably the best for general information, and it makes a good reference set to keep.  Senior students may appreciate having access to the past 19 years' worth of magazines online. There is still a problem: how do you get students to visit magazines and sites like this?

Heinemann's sciencemax magazine ceased publication in 2004, was designed to be sold and used in classes. I suspect there isn't a big enough market for that sort of publication. Newton ceased publication, and while some of the same people are bringing out Cosmos, I find it slick and not inspiring to students. Australasian Science is a useful adjunct to learning. Scientriffic and The Helix, both part of the CSIRO's education operation, are very good.

There is no agreement on what scientific literacy is, probably because you need to stop and ask 'in whom?' first. It is a crowd of related traits, not a single item.

It is appropriate to speak in terms of an ability to spot the flaws in the babble of pseudo-science, but when we work with children, we are trying to help them move along a continuum. Just as some beginner readers struggle and will one day may emulate Marcel Proust, so some of our school science students may one day emulate the chemist, Joseph Louis Proust. Right now, we don't know which ones are which, or which may be both.

I have a mantra that says education, teaching, training, wisdom, knowledge, learning, understanding and erudition are not the same thing. If we target these with joy, enthusiasm and culture, we will have done a good thing.

This article was originally published in Connections No 58, 2006

Peter Macinnis has also written about literacy at members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/literacy.htm

His recent books include Bittersweet: the Story of Sugar, 2002, SCIS no. 1105234, Rockets: Sulfur, Sputnik and Scramjets, 2003, SCIS no. 1145285, The Killer Bean of Calabar and Other Stories: poisons and poisoners, 2004, SCIS no. 1188673 and It's True! You Eat Poison Every Day, 2006, SCIS no. 1248363.  Killer Bean is being translated into five other languages.


Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Science teaching
Science literacy