Science Skills: The Key to Scientific Literacy

As a scientist, I‘ve heard a lot of complaining that students aren‘t coming to college prepared for science classes. Why can‘t we, as a nation, encourage scientific literacy? people whine.

But when I look at what has been proposed as a solution for increasing scientific literacy, I cringe: most of what I see are lists of what students should know by the time they graduate from high school. My opinion is that what educators are suggesting as a fix will not help at all, not one bit. And I think perhaps the reason that they don't have a good solution is that they don't understand what science actually is.

What is science? This is how I would define it: science is a particular way of finding answers to currently unanswered questions or unsolved problems.

So let me ask you: what is necessary to be able to solve problems in this way? Pure memorization is never going to be the answer. Yes, some factual knowledge is necessary; but you also need to understand certain ways of thinking and have certain skills.

An analogy

Here‘s an analogy that may make more sense to you. Imagine that you are an auto mechanic with years of experience fixing GM cars. On occasion you‘ve helped repair a Honda or Toyota or Volkswagen, but you‘re mostly familiar with GM vehicles.

Then, one day, a friend needs your help to fix a Russian car. The only manual you can find is in Russian, a language which neither of you understand. Could you fix the car? Probably; you have a solid knowledge of the basics of how cars work, so you should be able to figure out which part is which. But you also have basic skills that your friend might not have: how to hoist out an engine block, how to disconnect the electrical system without causing short circuits, and so on. You need both knowledge and skills to be successful.

In science, even more than in auto repair, skills are essential. Observation is necessary for finding essential clues to solving the problem. Critical thinking skills are necessary to separate correlation from causation. Record keeping is necessary so you remember all of the "fixes" you try. And so forth and so on.

What determines if a student is scientifically literate? Quite simply, it comes down to how they figure out an unknown situation. This is not something that can be determined by standardized testing, nor taught by rigid curricula. Instead, it must be taught through constant exposure to experimentation, by incremental exposure to the science skills, until students are finally unafraid to tackle such problems in a methodical, scientific fashion

An example of scientific illiteracy

When I was teaching general chemistry lab I got to see quite a few scientifically illiterate students up close and personal. Keep in mind that probably 95% of my students were either engineering or science majors who had taken significant amounts of science classes in high school. Nonetheless, they came to me with very few problem-solving skills whatsoever.

One of our labs was very open-ended: choose from a list of a dozen possibilities; combine the two chemicals; observe what happens; then try to figure out what chemical reaction is taking place. It sounded simple enough, but most of my students were just blown away by these instructions. They‘d pick two chemicals—say, sodium bicarbonate and hydrochloric acid—and watch the chemicals interact, but they had trouble getting farther than this. (Note that this is essentially the same reaction as baking soda plus vinegar—different acid, same effect—which most people have witnessed before. But they still couldn't figure it out.) I'd try to help them by asking them questions

Me: "What did you observe?"

Student "It bubbled."

Me: "What does that mean?"

Student "I don‘t know."

Me: "What makes bubbles form?"

Student "I don‘t know."

Me: "Well, what state of matter is inside a bubble?"

Student "Gas?"

Me: "Right. So when bubbles form, what sort of reaction is happening?"

Student "Umm, gas formation?"

Me: "Good. So now you need to determine what gas is being formed and write a balanced reaction."

Here is scientific illiteracy: Observing something in real life, but yet being unable to translate those observations into a model of what is happening.

Now the students had been given a table of gases they were likely to encounter in the laboratory (with characteristics of each gas) but they would still have trouble.

Student "How do I know which gas this is?"

Me: "Well, let‘s look at chlorine gas. Was there any chlorine present in your reactants? No? Then how could you possibly end up with chlorine gas?"

Student: "Oh! You mean that whatever elements I have in the reactants also have to be found in the products as well?"

Now they'd just learned about conservation of mass and balancing chemical equations. They understood this concept on paper…but applying those principles to a real-life problem was beyond them. Again, this is scientific illiteracy.

How a real scientist thinks

At the risk of sounding egotistical, I will offer an instance from my own life as an example of how scientists think about problems. Although I do science almost every day, most of the problems I have to deal with are actually of a technical variety: the analytical equipment I used in my first three years of grad school was rather old and frequently in need of repair. So on occasion, I might inject a sample, hit "run"…and nothing would happen! So of course I had to figure out why so I could get back to doing science.

First I'd ask myself, What is the problem? Well, I don‘t seem to be getting a signal. So I'd scratch my head and think about what might stop the instrument from producing a signal. The detector might be broken; that would stop me from reading any signal that was produced. Or my reagents aren‘t combining to produce a signal in the first place.

Notice what I am doing here: I first observe what the problem is; then I think of what might possibly be causing the problem. The next step is to determine which of the possibilities is correct.

I choose to start with the reagents, because it‘s really hard to test the detector. (Scientists tend to be rather practical this way!)

Are all the lines connected so that the reagents can get where they need to go? Yes.

Are the reagent reservoirs reasonably full, are are we running out? They‘re half full, which should be plenty, but I refill them anyway.

Does it work now? No, I need to try something else.

Did I make a mistake when I was mixing up the reagents? Maybe I didn't pay attention to the recipe? I remake the reagents, being very careful as I do so. But this doesn't fix the problem.

One of my reagents is very perishable; could it have gone bad? Yup, it's pretty smelly. I get a fresh solution from the freezer and try remaking that reagent solution. It works! I get a signal! YAHOO!

Now this may seem like a simple process…something very ordinary that everyone knows how to do…but yet many people cannot take this logical approach to problem solving.

Why TRUE scientific literacy is necessary

Scientific literacy is really all about learning how to solve problems. So let‘s think about some careers that people might have as adults: stay-at-home parent; lawyer; doctor; teacher; appliance repairman; contractor; and, of course, scientist!! (Not to mention many others, of course.)

Do any of these careers require problem-solving? I think it's pretty obvious that all of them do. So, on a small scale, scientific literacy is pretty useful in everyday life.

But I think that on a much larger scale, proper problem-solving skills are absolutely essential: people who can solve problems have the potential to change things for good, in both small and big ways.

Speaking for myself, I don't really care what occupation my sons take up when they're older, but I do care about the sort of people they become. I want my sons to change the world in significant ways, even if they're small significant ways. I know a way to make that happen; and I know a way you can make it happen for your children, too.

Science isn't just about learning and discovery. It's about improving the world. Let's get out there and do it!