Diversity and Democracy

New Scientific Literacies for an Interdependent World

As higher education becomes increasingly attuned to global interdependence, the task of preparing students to be responsible citizens and professionals becomes more complex. Colleges and universities have long provided general education designed to afford breadth beyond the expertise students gain in their majors. But students now need more clearly defined awareness and sensibilities that will help them make informed decisions about issues of global concern, such as environmental sustainability. They will need to develop capabilities to address these issues while also meeting the demands of functioning in a technological society where science and quantitative analysis are key to decision-making.

Decades ago, a "literate" person was one who knew the Western canon. Today, colleges and universities must move beyond that narrow framework to impart to students a set of multiple "new literacies": scientific, technological, ethical, environmental, and global. This set of literacies is requisite to participation in a globally interconnected world. In this article, I will briefly describe the evolution toward the concept of new literacies before exploring what scientific literacy in particular means for students.

From Literacy to Literacies

In announcing its Literacy Decade (2003-12), the United Nations (UN) acknowledged an expanded and pluralistic definition of literacy. Looking beyond the "three Rs," the UN recognized that "there are many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes, personal circumstances and collective structures" (UNESCO 2004, 6). Although based in an understanding of multiple cultural and social milieus, the UN's efforts focus primarily on comprehension of the printed word.

Literacy in this sense has long been necessary for individuals to function in the world. It has been key to communicating effectively, to understanding the order of social institutions, and to participating in public decision-making—in short, to surviving. According to Stromquist, "literacy skills are fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, [and] active and passive participation in local and global social community" (2005, 16).

Seven years after the UNESCO report, literacy has become a ubiquitous term, used to express a wider range of competencies than those concerned with language. In this expanded view, literacy is no less important to survival. Take scientific literacy as an example: individuals need it to function in a technology-dominated society. But society also needs individuals who have it so they can take ethical and informed action, understand the global and local implications of their actions, and change those actions if the outcomes are not desirable.

Defining Scientific Literacy

Shifts in the idea of literacy have arisen in tandem with pressing problems whose solutions require competencies heretofore entrusted to experts. In today's world, it is not enough for experts to hold specialized knowledge: all citizens must have some literacy in a range of subjects to inform their decision-making and personal actions. When considering these new literacies in the context of higher education, one fundamental question is: What does one need to know, and how does one act if one is literate in a particular area?

Scientific literacy is different from expertise in science. It is a functional literacy consisting of the ability to find relevant scientific information as needed, to understand basic meanings, and to ask the right questions. In short, it means being able to use information. Scientifically literate people are able to discriminate between information that is relevant and irrelevant, useful and useless, and they understand what constitutes the right degree of precision.

The National Science Education Standards developed by the National Academy of Sciences (1996) speaks to this understanding of literacy. However, it also includes the requirement that "a [scientifically literate] person ha[ve] the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena" (22, my emphasis). Predictive ability calls for formal expertise and understanding that not everyone can practically achieve. Thus educators should ask, what is the minimum set of basic principles in each discipline that would constitute literacy? Pedagogy geared toward literacy should begin with this question. Without it, curricular reform will rest on misconceptions that thwart educational attempts.

Teaching for Scientific Literacy

At present, colleges and universities generally teach scientific literacy as a weakened version of teaching for expertise, by using analogies too vague to be of use, or by requiring nonscience majors to take introductory courses designed for majors. None of these approaches yield scientifically literate students who are able to invoke scientific knowledge as and when needed. In addition, this kind of teaching often undermines students' motivation or allows them, in proverbial terms, to "not know that they do not know."

What are some general features of teaching and learning for the new literacies, and for scientific literacy in particular? First, learning should be connected to students' lives and placed in context. Yet science, as expressed through formalism, aims at general principles abstracted from observation. It is often taught in ways that reflect this—by introducing students to mechanics through the general principle of Newton's laws, for example. In this educational model, connections to lived experience appear only as applications of principle. In contrast, the second general feature of teaching for scientific literacy suggests that educators should present laws as derived from daily experience, and hence as useful.

Make connections via interdisciplinarity, and motivate students via context-setting: These are not new ideas, although they have long been marginalized in science. Under the influence of Francis Bacon, science increasingly became a tool for technical achievement—in Bacon's words, for the "endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race over the universe," an ambition he called "wholesome and noble" ([1819] 1960, 29). As science developed in this direction, it became increasingly divided into disciplines. Numerous authors have pointed out that this approach has affected pedagogy and alienated students from science. But as science increasingly becomes a tool for humanity rather than a tool for power—a shift on which human survival arguably depends—calls for interdisciplinarity are becoming louder.

The Need for Interdiscliplinarity

The shift to interdisciplinary teaching changes the motivation for learning science. Rather than positioning science as a tool for experts to achieve technical control, interdisciplinary teaching and learning posits science as a tool for everyone to serve humanity. An invitation to do science for this purpose can be a significant motivator to students who otherwise see science as irrelevant to their lives and leave the science pipeline altogether (Seymour and Hewitt 1997).

Great educators like Alfred North Whitehead articulated similar themes early in the twentieth century. In the introduction to Aims of Education (1927), Whitehead delineated three fundamental stages of learning science: romance, precision, and generalization. Too often, twenty-first-century educators teach science by inverting these stages—introducing students to the subject matter through generalization. With this approach, many students never experience the romance, never become emotionally involved with the topic or subject area, and thus never internalize or own the knowledge.

Educator Joseph Novak pointed out that "the central purpose of education is to empower learners to take charge of their own meaning-making. Meaning-making involves thinking, feeling and acting, and all three of these aspects must be integrated for significant new learning, and especially for new knowledge creation" (1998, 13). Marcia Linn and colleagues refer to this as knowledge integration, "a dynamic process where students build connections between their existing knowledge and the curriculum content" (Slotta and Linn 2000, 195).

One conundrum of teaching for literacy arises in the context of knowledge integration. Education for the various literacies is often relegated to the general education curriculum, where it is seen as less important than the deep learning that occurs in the major. As a result, the total time and attention given to developing general literacies is less than that devoted to the major. Yet this type of learning is about developing sensibilities and habits of mind that should eventually become second nature—a process that requires time and practice. Most people who read and write well learn to do so by using these skills regularly, for multiple activities where they practice implicitly all the time. The same should be true of all literacies students develop while in college. Practice should thus be embedded not only in general education, but also in the major—even if doing so requires faculty to move beyond their comfort zones.

A Pedagogical Approach

By grounding science in concrete contexts and relevant situations, educators can provide the romance and encourage the meaning-making that will keep students interested. So what is teaching that begins with these assumptions like?

I taught a course modeled on these assumptions for teaching scientific literacy for all students. The course was called Science and Technology for the Environment, and it used the environment and human relationships to it as a basis for teaching scientific and technological principles for daily decision-making. The course followed a problem-solving approach, invoking basic scientific principles and technical skills as the topics addressed required them. The approach conceived of the environment as composed of different systems—ethics, atmosphere, energy, materials, health, institutions—and included assignments, exercises, and projects relevant not only to the environment and but also to students' daily lives (for more about our pedagogical frameworks and course material, see http://telstar.ote.cmu.edu/environ/m2/s3/index.shtml).

To keep connections and context in sight, I regularly used concept mapping as a tool. In addition to encouraging systems thinking, concept mapping can reveal students' preexisting misconceptions. As educators such as Hestenes and Mazur have shown, when students' conceptual frameworks are erroneous, they continue to build around those frameworks (Halloun and Hestenes 1985; Mazur 1997). Identifying and correcting misconceptions explicitly is a powerful learning practice.

When colleagues and I assessed students' learning and their ability to apply it, nonscience majors showed significant gains. They emerged capable of asking the right questions when faced with a situation involving environmental decision-making (Nair, Jones, and White 2002).

The Hourglass Model

Science teaching geared toward building expertise often starts with a sequential progression from theoretical knowledge to applied problem solving. This may be effective for students who are committed to science and will have extended opportunities for future cumulative learning. But teaching for literacy among nonscience majors requires a different approach.

Figure 1

At Carnegie Mellon, we developed the "hourglass model," a scheme for maintaining depth while attaining breadth (see figure 1). This model may be an instructive framework for teaching that accomplishes both. The central cylinder represents the disciplinary core, which extends as required by the students' major course of study.

Exploration occurs early in the students' educational careers and introduces the romance of Whitehead's model. This stage (marked as "A" in the diagram) provides exposure to the "big questions"—of science, environment, and ethics—in the form of interdisciplinary experiences such as seminars and projects that emphasize finding the right questions rather than solving problems. Students face multiple perspectives and solutions, consider real-world constraints and challenges, grapple with scientific uncertainty and incomplete knowledge, and practice making choices and decisions.

At the midpoint of the hourglass is focus, a stage that is narrower in disciplinary range and concentrates around the major to build depth in knowledge and skills (while still keeping integration in mind). Toward the end of the undergraduate experience, the focus of study widens again to expansion (marked as "B" in the diagram) as students apply and exercise the skills they gained by studying disciplinary content and reflecting on their worldviews and professional obligations.

Real-World Learning for Real Application

Carnegie Mellon's models argue for introducing students early to interdisciplinary thinking, problem formulation, and the habit of grappling with complexity and ambiguity. In the context of acquiring new literacies to address vital problems, these practices can be empowering to students. As their studies progress, they develop disciplinary depth while continuing to hold earlier interdisciplinary questions in mind. As their undergraduate years come to an end, students revisit the questions they encountered at the beginning, this time applying their disciplinary expertise with greater mindfulness of complexity and ambiguity. This approach to science literacy education is valuable for science majors and nonscience majors alike as they prepare for real-world settings where people from all disciplines collaborate to solve the world's most pressing problems. Courses where students from all majors model this approach can be the best tools for introducing all literacies to all students.


Bacon, Francis. (1819) 1960. The New Organon, edited by F. H. Anderson. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Halloun, Ibrahim A., and David Hestenes. 1985. "The Initial Knowledge State of College Physics Students." American Journal of Physics 53: 1043-55.

Mazur, Eric. 1997. Peer Instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Nair, Indira, Sharon Jones, and Jennifer White. 2002. "A Curriculum to Enhance Environmental Literacy." Journal of Engineering Education, January 2002, 58-67.

National Academy of Sciences. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Novak, Joseph D. 1998. Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations. New York: Routledge.

Seymour, Elaine, and Nancy M. Hewitt. 1997. Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Slotta, James, and Marcia C. Linn. 2000. "The Knowledge Integration Environment: Helping Students Use the Internet Effectively." In Innovations in Science and Mathematics Education, edited by Michael J. Jacobson and Robert B. Kozma, 193-226. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Stromquist, Nelly P. 2005. "The Political Benefits of Adult Literacy." Paper commissioned for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006, Literacy for Life. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001461/146187e.pdf.

UNESCO. 2004. The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes. Paris: UNESCO.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1927. The Aims of Education and Other Essays. New York: Free Press.

Indira Nair is vice provost emerita at Carnegie Mellon University, and chair of AAC&U's Shared Futures Global Learning Leadership Council.


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