Nobody wants to be thought of as illiterate. But if you were at a party and quoted Archimedes' principle - an object immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object - it probably would not earn you a round of polite applause or the admiration of your fellow guests. So how important is it to be scientifically literate and can we define what that means?
Literacy in science and scientific literacy are really two different things. One is about being able to access the words in science, writing about science and understanding scientific writing. The other is more about how you use your knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes to make decisions about things that may affect you and to enable you to participate in debates on issues related to science, technology and society.
If you are scientifically literate you should be able to ask and find answers to questions about everyday experiences that you find curious. If you can describe, explain and make predictions about natural phenomena, there is a good chance that you have a well-developed level of scientific literacy. A useful aspect of scientific literacy is being able to read and understand science-based articles in the popular press. Even more useful is being able to assess how accurate and valid those articles' claims are.
We often lose sight of the purpose of science in the curriculum. Lots of people talk about STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects as being vital to our economy, which of course they are. Teaching STEM subjects, however, is not just about ensuring a supply of scientists and engineers to industry. The best reason for teaching science must be to make our pupils more scientifically literate.
Science affects us all in many and varied ways. The pupils we teach are bombarded with dilemmas and information that have science or technology at their heart - for example, vaccinating against measles, mumps and rubella; assessing the health implications of things from mobile-phone masts to alternative energy and homeopathy; and whether or not genetically modified crops are beneficial. The more scientifically literate we are, the more able we are to assess the evidence and make the right choice.
James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work.
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