Science in the News: An Evaluation of Students' Scientific Literacy

By Murcia, Karen | Teaching Science, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Science in the News: An Evaluation of Students' Scientific Literacy


Murcia, Karen, Teaching Science


Understanding and evaluating reports of science in the media is frequently stated as an attribute of a scientifically literate person, with some researchers suggesting it should be fundamental to any study of scientific literacy. Constructive engagement with science news briefs requires individuals to understand the terms used, take a critical stance and to make links from the report to the broader science discipline and social context. Yet the research reported in this paper indicates that more than fifty percent of the first-year university students surveyed did not demonstrate the ability to critically engage with science reported in the news. The students demonstrated minimal engagement with the reported methods and a lack of sensitivity to the fact that scientific research takes place within a social community. The findings of this study highlight the need for explicit teaching, with appropriate scaffolds and modeling to develop students' ability to critically engage with science news reports.

INTRODUCTION

'Exercise cuts risk of ovarian cancer'

'Life forms on planets inevitable'

'Climate more dire than thought'

This sample of headlines from The West Australian daily newspaper in Perth, West Australia provides us with a small snapshot of the demands that are being placed on individuals and communities to engage with science research, applications of science in the form of technology and sustainable development practices. The appearance of such reports in the media implies that citizens understand key science concepts, the values and assumptions inherent in the development of scientific knowledge and the interaction of science with society. Science news reports, if adequately engaged with, are an important source of new information contributing to lifelong learning. In order to critically engage with the issues and debates in science news briefs all citizens need a reasonable level of scientific literacy. Broadly speaking, scientific literacy means what the general community ought to know about science in order to have the competence and disposition to use science to meet the personal and social demands of life at home, at work and in the community (Murcia, 2009). A range of definitions of scientific literacy are, however, evident in the literature. This is due in part to the range of interest groups active in the field and shifting social and economic agendas. Laugksch (2000) suggested that interest groups, including science educators, scientists, sociologists and science communicators, focus their conceptions of scientific literacy on their targeted audience. Different views result due to who the audience is perceived to be and hence what should be known and shared about science.

More recently, Lang, Drake and Olsen (2006) noted that community-based science education projects necessitate students learning how to participate in public debate over real issues. They suggest that these initiatives entail new visions of what constitutes scientific literacy. Lang et al. (2006) suggested that scientific literacy is a literacy that crosses disciplinary boundaries and puts human values at the centre of educational practices (p. 178). These authors suggested that approaches to science incorporating rich social contexts and situations place demands on teachers to see science in a new light and to integrate the curriculum accordingly. Other authors (Norris and Phillips, 2003; Yore, Bisanz and Hand, 2003; Fang, 2004; Yore and Treagust, 2006) have taken an integrated view of curriculum and focused their discussion on language literacy skills within science education. Language literacy skills play an integral role in developing and demonstrating scientific literacy, particularly when engaging with science news reports.

Understanding and evaluating reports of science in newspapers is frequently included in the literature as an attribute of a scientifically literate person, with some researchers suggesting that it should be fundamental to any study of scientific literacy (Dimopoulos and Koulaidis, 2002; Elliott, 2006; Farman and McClune, 2002; Korpan, Bisanz and Bisanz, 1997; Norris and Phillips, 1999; Ratcliffe, M. …

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