Achieving Scientific Literacy Through a Curriculum Connected with Mathematics and Technology

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  • Achieving Scientific Literacy Through a Curriculum Connectedwith Mathematics and TechnologyMary Hamm School of Education

    San Francisco State UniversitySan Francisco, California 94132

    Scientific literacy encompasses science, mathematics, andtechnology. Although it has emerged as a major theme inAmerican educational reform, it remains an illusive goal.Numerous studies have made it clear that US education isfailing too many students in this area-and thus failing thecountry. But is it really quite as bad off as everyone seems tothink?

    In a recent public opinion study, less than half of Americanadults knew that the earth annually revolves around the sun,astronomy was confused with astrology, and two in fivebelieved alien creatures have visited the earth (Miller, 1990).At least pseudoscience is doing well.

    International comparisons rank American fifth graders 8thout of 17 countries in science achievement. By ninth grade, USstudents are in 15th place out of 17 countries. Even advancedplacement high school physics students scored 9th and advancedchemistry students 11 th in a 13-country comparison. Results onmathematics tests are similar. American eighth-grade studentsscored well below other countries in solving problems thatrequired analysis and higher levels of thinking (NationalAssessment of Educational Progress. 1989).

    The precarious state of science and mathematics learningfor Black and Hispanic youth is also disturbing. At ages 13 and17, minority students perform four or more years behind theirwhite counterparts. In addition to these problems, recentsurveys by the US Education Department found that a majorityof girls, disadvantaged students, and minorities were lost toscience and mathematics by the time they left elementaryschool. Lack ofeffective instruction and loss ofstudent interestwere cited as the major culprits in this loss of talent (McKnightetal.,1987).

    America has an urgent priority in reforming science,mathematics, and technology education. In the next 10 years,an estimated 70% of jobs will be related somehow to thetechnology of computers, numeracy, and electronics (Rouse,1988). Business leaders, public officials, and teachers arguethat without solid skills in these areas students will not beprepared for even the most routine work (Aronowitz, 1990).Also, the United States will lack the science and engineeringtalent to compete effectively in the global market. Worse yet,the nature ofour democracy is threatened by ill-informed votersunable to make decisions about issues critical to the welfare ofthis country and the global community.

    The evidence suggests the US is as bad off as everyonethinks.

    Scientific Literacy

    Knowledge of science, mathematics, and technology isvaluable for everyone because it makes the world moreunderstandable and more interesting. All students should havean awareness of what the scientific endeavor is and how itrelates to theircultureand their lives. Thismeans understandingthe union of science, mathematics, and technology; its roots;the human contributions; and its limitations as well as itsadvances. Recognizing the role of the scientific endeavor andhow science, mathematics, and technology interact with societyis one of the basic dimensions of scientific literacy. TheNational Council on Science and Technology Educationidentifies a scientifically literate person as one who:

    1. recognizes the diversity and unity of the natural world,2. understands the important concepts and principles of

    science,3. is aware of the ways that science, mathematics, and

    technology depend on each other,4. knows that mathematics, science, and technology are

    human endeavors and recognizes what this implies about thestrengths and weaknesses of science, mathematics, andtechnology,

    5. has a capacity for scientific ways of thinking, and6. makes use of scientific knowledge and ways of thinking

    in personal and social interactions (American Association forthe Advancement of Science, 1990).

    Scientific literacy also includes seeing scientific endeavorsthrough the perspective of cultural and intellectual history andbecoming familiarwith ideas that cutacross subjectboundaries.This involves an awareness that most of the scientific viewsheld today resulted from many small discoveries over time andare a product of cultural and historical ways of thinking andviewing the world. Significant historical events such as Galileosperspective on the earths place in the universe; Newtonsdiscoveries oflawsofmotion; Darwinsobservationsofdiversity,variety, and evolving life forms; and Pasteurs identification ofinfectious disease stemming from microscopic organisms aremilestones in the development of Western thought and events.

    People have always been concerned with transmittingattitudes, shared values, and ways of thinking to the nextgeneration. Today, it seems more critical as every part ofcontemporary life is bombarded by science and technology.Part of scientific literacy consists of clarifying attitudes,possessing certain scientific values, and making informed

    School Science and Mathematics

  • Scientific Literacy

    judgments. Students need to cultivate scientific patterns ofthinking, logical reasoning, curiosity, an openness to newideas, and skepticism in evaluatingclaims and arguments (Hurd,1991).

    Positive attitudes are also important. Beingable to understandthe basic principles of science, being numerate in dealing withquantitative matters, thinking critically, measuring accurately,using ordinary tools of science and mathematics (includingcalculators and computers) are all part of the scientific literacyequation.

    To achieve this type of scientific literacy, students need tobe able to:

    1. develop and apply creative and rational thinking abilities,2. develop values and attitudes that promote ethical and

    moral thinking,3. develop a perspective that promotes the interdependent

    nature of the environment and global society,4. develop the ability for holistic thinking,5. develop ability to use science concepts, facts, and princi-

    ples in the solution of problems, and6. manipulate the materials of science and communicate

    science and mathematics information (American Associationfor the Advancement of Science. 1990).

    Combining Subject Matter andthe Knowledge of Effective Instruction

    In teaching for scientific literacy, both pedagogical andcontent area knowledge are important. Without the essentialcontentbase, teachers will find itdifficulttodiscuss contentandfocus students thinking, and they will have trouble providingappropriate feedback. People who are just well-prepared inmathematics and science will make predictable mistakes(Shulman&Colbert, 1987). Withoutaknowledge ofpedagogy,it is difficult to managea class or make mathematics and sciencemeaningful and interesting for students.

    Traditionally, there has been a gap between whatwas taughtin science and mathematics and what was really learned.Interpreting and understanding thereal world-andhow it relatesto personal experienceis different than the interpretations andunderstandings advanced in school science and math courses.Typical school programs have produced students withincreasingly negative attitudes about science and mathematicsas they progress through the grades. This is especially true whenmathematics and sciencecoursesdonot considerneeds, interests,motivations or experiences of the learners or when the materialbeing covered is not viewed as useful or valuable.

    In teaching children to think scientifically and mathematically,it is important to help them to apply their understanding andskills in solving problems, discovering relationships, analyzingpatterns, generalizing concepts, and using numbers withconfidence. Incorporating application with collaborativestrategies can assist students in taking responsibility for theirthoughts as they use higher level thinking skills and build inner

    confidence. Scientific literacy will be enhanced over the longhaul if programs are developed in an environment thatemphasizes cooperative learning.

    These new teaching models require combining a cognitiveapproach with metacognitionthinking about thinking.Students need to think skillfully, and they need to be able tomonitor their thinking processes as they work. Constructing ahypothesis, problem solving, critical thinking, andcooperativegroup work can replace traditional chalk-talk and textbookmethodology. Connecting science and mathematics to eachlearners reality and paying attention to interpersonal learningrelationships will also help. When these elements are in place,science and mathematics can be used to solve interestingproblems in unique ways (National Council of Teachers ofMathematics, 1989).

    Recently, technological innovations like calculators andcomputers have changed the way science and mathematics aretaught and learned. New models of instruction that encourageusing technology and collaboration havesprung up to deal withthis new reality. We are now at a stage where teachers andstudents must move from seeing technology as a source ofknowledge (coach, drill) to viewing it as amedium orforum forcommunication and intelligent adventure. Making intelligentuse of technological innovations requires more thinking,problem formulating, and interpersonal communication skills(Foreman & Pufall, 1988).A substantive knowledge base now exists regarding the

    social and psychological characteristics of how children learnabout mathematics, scienceand technology. Yetstudies indicatethat even experienced teachers are not familiar with thisknowledge (Carey, Mittman. & Darling-Hamond, 1989). Thechallenge is to make research-based knowledge accessible toboth practicing teachers and college students in teachereducation programs.

    Steps That Can Be Taken

    1. Improve the teaching of science, mathematics, andtechnology. Effective teaching must be based on learningprinciples of research and practice. These include providingstudents with active hands-on experience, placing emphasison students curiosity and creativity and frequently using astudent team approach to learning (Adams & Hamm, 1990).

    2. Attend to the importance of students in the learningprocess. Students need to be placed in situations where theydevelop and create their own science understandings, connectconcepts with personal meanings, and put ideas together forthemselves. For students to connect in a meaningful way withscience, it is important for concept and process skills to bederived by students at all levels and not have science be something that is presented to them. Researching their questions,experimenting to find out, observing, discussing, and askingnew questions are some examples of students takingresponsibility for their learning.

    Volume 92 (1), January 1992

  • Scientific Literacy

    3. Incorporate innovative and alternative teaching andlearning strategies. Classrooms should be organized so thatsmall mixed-ability groups are a forum formathematics/sciencediscussions, discovery, creativity, and connections to othersubjects. When students resourcefully collaborate, askquestions, and explore possible answers, they can develop anenergetic enthusiasm about these subjects. As mathematics andscience move from their computational and factual base to aproblem-solving emphasis, these subjects can come alive andstimulate students because of their immediacy. Many newstrategies have emerged. Some of these include investigations,interviews, questioning techniques, journal writing, and newassessment techniques such as performance assessment,portfolios, and use of multimedia.

    4. Develop new curriculummodels. To achieve the goals ofscientific literacy the curricula must be changed to reduce theamountofmaterial coveredandemphasize a thematic approach.There is a need to focus on the connections among the variousdisciplines of science, mathematics, technology and buildintegrated understandings. It is important for teachers to opento cooperative learning practices and to pay more attention tothe collaborative links between mathematics, science, andtechnology. The scientific endeavor must be presented as asocial phenomenon that influences human thought and action.

    5. Extend learning beyond the classroom. Students needopportunities to assumeautonomy in theirlearning, use scientificliteracy to improve their own lives, and be provided withopportunities to experience responsible roles as citizens.Encouraging students to identify with problems oflocal interest,use resources to locate information, and get actively involvedin seeking information that can be applied to solve real-lifeproblems is one way to meet this challenge.

    6. Provide students equal access to knowledge. A centralrole of scientific literacy is promoting intellectual processesthrough encounters with knowledge. Unfortunately, science,mathematics, and technological knowledge is often translatedinto fragmented bits and pieces rather than the essence ofliterate human dialogue. Thericher an individuals experienceswith the tools of mathematics, science, and technology, thegreater theprospects for living a rich life. Opportunities to gainaccess to the mostgenerally usefulknowledgearetoo frequentlylimited by misguided decisions with regard to grouping andtracking, maldistributed in terms ofpoor and minority childrenand youth, and overlooked by poorly prepared teachers. Anemphasis todaymustbeplaceon careerawareness and awarenessof opportunities in science, mathematics, and technology.

    7. Involve teachers actively in the learning process. Forteachers, the focus needs to shift to instruction, makinginstruction more important than curriculum. There is a need forteachers to be provided with opportunities to experience thekind of instruction they are being asked to provide. It isimportant to get teachers actively engaged using science so theywatch themselves as learners, play with ideas, see their ownminds getting involved with the topic, and experience theirown

    confusions, hesitancies, and the excitement that comes fromgrowth in learning something as a group.

    Towards a ConnectedMathematics/Science/Technology Curriculum

    Some of the factors that shape scientific and mathematicalbehavior are just beginning to be examined. Its becomingincreasingly clear that being able to think scientifically andmathematically requires more than large amounts of exposureto content. Students need direct decision-making experiencesso that their minds can be broadened by applying science andmathematics. By actively examining and solving problems,students can become flexible and resourceful as they use theirknowledge efficiently and come to understand the rules whichunderlie these domains ofknowledge (Hendricksen & Morgan,1990).

    Mathematics researchers examined traditional programsand found that students foundations (cognitive resources) forproblem solving were far weaker than their performance ontests would indicate. These studies suggested that evenmathematically-talented high school and college students (whoexperience success in upper division mathematics cou...

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