Science Journalism: Students Learn Lifelong Science Literacy Skills by Reporting the News

Article excerpt

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Imagine the lives of Jane and John 15 years after graduating from high school. Jane's daughter suffers from severe allergies, having tried various diets and medications. Her church building committee wonders how much to invest in energy efficiency. John's mother worries about the risks of hormone replacement therapy. His community's school board is deciding whether "intelligent design" should be taught in the classroom. Both Jane and John plan to vote in an upcoming election in which the candidates hold widely different views on climate change; the ballot also has referenda tightening regulations on smoking and alcohol consumption due to health concerns. As Jane and John grapple with the issues affecting them, their families, and their communities, will their high school science educations help them make informed decisions?

Much of the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996), aside from the inquiry and teaching sections, focus on content. Our call is instead to build standards that focus on what students need to be scientifically literate in 10 or 15 years. Although a basic understanding of important scientific concepts and an understanding of how inquiry is practiced are immensely helpful, they are not enough. Students need ways to find, evaluate, and make sense of new scientific and technical information that we cannot predict with any degree of certainty.

Even in the present, students need skills that enable them to make decisions on technical issues and understand what takes place in cutting-edge laboratories and the papers generated directly from scientists' work. What standards and skills might support such understandings? This article reports on an initiative that addresses such needs.

The "Science Literacy Through Science Journalism" (SciJourn) project (Polman et al. 2010; Saul et al. 2012) explores how the practices of good science journalism can inform high school science education. As high school students report science news, they learn to gather and contextualize information and bring critical eyes to that which they read and write. This effort can be contrasted to the goal of making every student a "little scientist." Years after graduation, when John and Jane want scientific information to make informed decisions, they will not head to the lab but rather to the internet or the library.

The science of journalism

Ideally, journalists serve as public educators and interpreters of what is new and controversial. Reporters tackle questions of current interest to readers; investigate these questions by gathering information from multiple, credible sources; digest the information, including controversies and relevant technical details; and present the news without bias in a way that the general public can understand.

Who, what, when, where, and why

In a traditionally structured news article, a journalist covers what's most important and new in the first few sentences or paragraphs, quickly getting to the heart of the issue. Anything new or not common knowledge is attributed to a credible source or sources. This attribution helps the reader judge the information's reliability. It also leaves a historical trail, showing where ideas and inventions originated.

The journalist presents the news report's subject in context. For example, an article on a technological breakthrough should explain how many people it will affect, how much it will cost, how it differs from what came before, and so on. Details of the discovery follow, with comments from other reliable scientists and experts with no stake in the research. A good reporter knows how to find credible experts who can provide broad views on any new discovery, therapy, or technology; he or she can navigate scientific communities and understand experts' work and technical lingo, even without a science degree. Of course, this doesn't guarantee that the article is truthful or complete, but the article is likely to be more objective than a press release or an advertisement. …