Increasing Scientific Literacy and Developing Scientific Attitudes

One of the issues in today’s secondary schools is a focus on memorizing facts and vocabulary rather than increasing scientific literacy.  By increasing focus on scientific literacy students will develop a scientific attitude. A scientific attitude is defined by Ira C. Davis as “a willingness to change opinion based on new evidence, search for the whole truth without evidence, have a concept of cause and effect relationships, making judgement based off fact, and the ability to distinguish fact from theory” (Cited in Miller, 1983).  For students to develop a scientific attitude they need to know science in context with how it affects them and the rest of the world.  In order for students to see how science effects the world teachers need to know methods to teach it effectively, and scientific curriculum needs to be planned around increasing scientific literacy.

            Without context to how science is affecting the world around them there is little incentive for students to have a strong interest in scientific content.  A very important topic of conversation today is the issue of climate change.  There are politicians who think climate change does not exist and some who think that it is real and there are changes that can be made to reduce its rate or stop it.  By teaching students to look at an issue with a scientific attitude and increasing their scientific literacy then they will be able to look at the research involving climate change and discern for themselves rather it is a real issue.  A student may know that carbon dioxide and methane are molecules and the atoms that make them up, but without knowing how to apply the information they know about this molecule the knowledge becomes useless outside of school.  Miller writes “Environmental groups, for example, found that some minimal level of scientific knowledge was necessary if individuals were to understand debates about pollution of the environment” (Miller 1983).

In a study in which data was collected from one thousand Wisconsin high school students, students were shown unlabeled sandstone, quartz, and granite and asked to select the one that most likely formed underwater.  Sixty percent of nine year olds, seventy-one percent of thirteen year olds, and seventy-eight percent of seventeen year olds selected the sandstone.  After they had selected they were asked to explain their selection, only seven percent of the nine year olds, fifteen percent of the thirteen year olds, and twenty-seven percent of the seventeen year olds were able to provide an explanation of sedimentation (Miller 1983).   These student’s had learned to remember that sandstone forms underwater, but not how the process works.  According to Blooms taxonomy remembering is the lowest form of learning.  In order for students to become more scientifically literate teachers need to start looking at their student’s learner from higher up in Bloom’s taxonomy. 

            In order to increase a student’s scientific literacy they need to have a teacher who knows proper methods for doing so.  One area that needs focus is how to read scientific information.  A lot of time delving into a scientific article or textbook alone for the first time can be very overwhelming for anyone and especially students with no background on how to read or decipher the information they need to attain.  By implementing first-draft reading approach it helps students to understand that they are not expected to understand it just by reading once through or even that article or textbook alone.  Gallagher writes in Deeper Reading “Students often see reading as an all or nothing proposition-they think that readers either get it immediately or they don’t” (2004).  By teaching students to do a first draft reading they are approaching the reading with a scientific attitude.  Students should come to their first draft reading with a mindset of figuring out what they need to know to understand the text that they are reading.

            Another method for developing a scientific attitude is problem based learning.  Problem based learning is when students are given complex real life situations where they rely on their critical thinking skills to solve a problem.  Savery and Duffy Write “Too often the case that the learners do not accept the goal of the instructional program, but rather focus on passing a test or putting in their time… the goals of the learner will largely determine what is learned.  Hence, it is essential the goals the learner bring to the environment are consistent with our instructional goals” (1996).  In order for students to focus on the correct goal teachers need to design lessons that impact the student in a meaningful way.  By showing students the ramifications that the content they are learning has on the world and forcing them to come up with solutions for issues that affect their life the students will be more likely to garner interest in the content.   If a student is assigned a project to research climate change and decide whether or not it is effected by pollution or not they will be forced to use every characteristic of a scientific attitude.  At the same time they will be developing critical thinking skills and learning about ozone, the different layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, heat absorption, how to read data, and properties of important molecules like carbon dioxide and methane.  Memorizing all these facts may not be useful in their everyday life post high school, but the ability to think critically to solve problems, search for answers, and understand cause and effect will help them be successful in many areas of their life.

            In order for teachers to be able to use methods that help create a scientific attitude and promote scientific literacy in students their curriculum must be designed to do so.  Too often teachers do not have the time to cover content in the depth that is needed.  By focusing on more in depth teaching and increasing scientific literacy the need to cover so many topics is reduced.  Increasing scientific literacy increases the ability for a student to teach themselves scientific concepts.  Scientific discovery is happening at a rapid pace and there will continue to become more rapid.  By teaching students to teach themselves they will be able to be better and more informed citizens on into their adult life.  Miller said “The specialized information required to be knowledgeable about almost any given political issue is increasing rapidly. Issues involving science fall into this category as do most issues on the political agenda… if only thirty-one percent of the adult population profess to having a clear understanding of a term like GNP, how many are expected to comprehend the current debate over supply side economics or the fate of the dollar in international monetary markets”  (Miller 1984).  By increasing scientific literacy students and adults will be able to look into new issues for themselves and teach themselves what is needed to know about the issue. 

            Increasing scientific literacy and developing scientific attitudes is necessary for students of America.  As scientific advances are made the amount of knowledge able to be learned in k-12 school becomes proportionally smaller and the amount that scientific issues affects us grows.  Teachers must start focusing on creating real life problem solvers and critical thinkers rather than having students regurgitate facts and vocabulary words on multiple choice tests. 




Miller, J. (1983). Scientific Literacy: A Conceptual and Empirical Review. Daedalus, 112(2), 29-48. Retrieved from

Gallagher, K. (2004). Deeper Reading. Portland, MI: Stenhouse Publishers.

Duffy, T. Savery, R. Constructivist Learning Enviroments: Case Studies in Instructional Design.

Problem Based Learning: An Instructional Model and Its Constructivist Framework.  135-139