Edutainment: Science Literacy Hail Mary or Slippery Slope of No Return?
by Kristi Charish
How do we learn?
It’s one of those questions constantly floated around academic educational circles in an attempt to determine how best to teach students and it’s a particularly charged topic around the subject of science literacy.
Science literacy is loosely defined as the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes. More specifically, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines scientific literacy as “the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.”
This requires a scientifically literate person to:
• Explain phenomena scientifically – recognize, offer and evaluate explanations for a range of natural and technological phenomena
• Evaluate and design scientific inquiry – describe and appraise scientific investigations and propose ways of addressing questions scientifically.
• Interpret data and evidence scientifically – analyze and evaluate data, claims and arguments in a variety of representations and draw appropriate scientific conclusions.
So how do we match up against these criteria? Available statistics vary – remember we’re dealing with a qualitative assessment of skill which is trickier to do that determine if someone can read or perform math but in general they suggest North Americans are doing about as well as everyone else. In other words, not great (For more detail on the data start with Science Daily News via John Miller at Michigan State University back in 2007 and in an 2010 article on Science News). One finding from 2007 that stuck out was that although Americans scored marginally better than their European counterparts, 70% of American were still unable to read and understand the science section of the New York Times. On many levels that could pose a serious societal problem on our horizon. Does it matter how many scientific wonders and advances you achieve if 70% of the population in unable to comprehend how we got there and what we’ve actually done?
How did our science literacy end up here? At what point does a society whose very existence depends on the scientific advances of the past 150 years and which is in the throws of unprecedented technological advances get to the point where a majority of the population is no longer literate enough to understand a report in a newspaper?
Theories range from the acceleration of scientific discoveries making it impossible for the general public to keep up to the deterioration of public science education, and the failure of scientists and news to properly communicate and decimate accurate information. Take your pick. I’m not certain it really matters what the cause is at this point, the outcome is the same. We’ve got more wonders of science around us then at any other point in history and some of our reactions mimic those of dark-age townspeople on a witch-hunt (Vaccinations and genetically modified organisms anyone?). Any solutions to the above problems posed would require a major shift in societal behavior- something we as humans aren’t particularly good at.
There is a possible Hail Mary for science literacy that doesn’t necessitate the engineering of massive social change, an area of educational research that has gained some attention in academic education and science literacy circles, and not always for positive reasons. Learning through narrative.
Learning through story narrative (whether it’s novels, TV, or videogames) isn’t anything new; it’s a process that’s been going on for millennia. Ever since we started painting hunting scenes on caves depicting how, where, and when to hunt, we’ve been telling stories through narrative. Humans like stories. We remember things told in a narrative better than something told as a singular fact. Stories give ideals and detail context, and the more entertaining the better. Good stories engage us by resonating on an emotional level, and that in turn brings details to life.