As educators we are asked the question “why is learning about science and how scientific knowledge is obtained important?” The question is generally asked when students are struggling with a difficult theory or concept, especially if said concept involves mathematics. The textbook answer is to assert the importance and relevance by using platitudes such as “science is all around us” or “because science is the only method by which you can truly understand how the world works” and the classic, even if you are not pursuing a career in science, “understanding science will give you a decent foundation for success when you leave school”. Now, as an enthusiast for all things connected to science, these statements make perfect sense. The trick is getting this across to students who for whatever reason are less than enthused about science in particular, and STEM in general.
Knowledge is Everywhere
Whether you think it’s the most amazing occurrence in the history of humanity, the worst of all possible worlds, or somewhere in between, science and technology is here and they are here to stay. Indeed, one overriding characteristic of the 21st century is the ubiquitous presence of electronic devices that even in the last decade of the 20th century, were little more than apples in the proverbial eyes of their nascent developers. In both a real and virtual teaching session, it is possible to bring together and explain the difference between “science” and “technology” and explain that understanding how these devices work is not the exclusive preserve of scientists and engineers.
As a corollary you can pose such questions as “do you think that people who drive vehicles have an understanding of how the engine works?” The answer is a clear yes, they do. The average person may not need to know how combustion occurs in terms of interaction between the vaporised atoms of fuel and the oxygen atoms that provide the necessary energy that enables the vehicle to move. However, the same driver will very likely have a very good understanding of notions of pressure in the tires and its connection to fuel economy. Well, it’s exactly the same with the latest touch screen mobile device. Understanding how a touch on a screen solicits the correct response from the device surely must form an essential component of what is known as “scientific literacy”. In an educational context, scientific literacy refers to empowering students of all ages and abilities, with the knowledge to make sense of and interpret the rapidly changing world around them.
Why is Scientific Literacy Important?
It is possible to write an encyclopaedia on this question and still not answer it adequately. In terms of our portable device mentioned above, scientific literacy would mean understanding what is meant by a circuit, a current, and words such as “conductor” and “insulator.” It should also mean discussing where the electrical energy comes from to power the device, which in turn ought to be linked to discussions on energy sources. Furthermore, we should be looking to establish what happens in terms of the flow of a current when an icon on the screen is pressed. In other words, “how the screen solicits the correct response”, should provide an avenue to explain terms such as electrical resistance. From here it should be possible to discuss what happens when the flow of electricity is altered in a whole range of electrical appliances.
Speaking personally, I am a huge believer in fostering as many connections as possible between different aspects of the science curriculum. From the above position you can talk about everything from what happens when the volume on a stereo amplifier is turned up, to what happens on the hob of an electric cooker when it is turned from 1 to 6. The whole point is to relate the subject and its importance to as many situations as possible. Then one can answer the questions in the opening paragraph in terms that children can understand in their own contexts. Additionally, the “why” question can be connected to explaining how some of the greatest achievements have only been possible by our desire to make sense of how the world around us is inter-related. In short, our curiosity is exemplified through scientific endeavour.
In the classroom, the scope for making connections is limited only by the imagination of the students and the teacher. The more connections made, the greater the scope for answering the question of why science is important.