Exploring Scientific Literacy

This work is the result of collaboration between the The Catholic Education Office (CEO) and the Faculty of Education, Monash University and is copyright. It has been funded by an Australian Research Council grant and may be reproduced in whole or in part for study or training purposes subject to the inclusion of an acknowledgement of the source and no commercial usage or sale.

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Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that such a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express opinions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately. (p. 22)


Science can be viewed as a way of thinking and knowing and humans are the ones who do the thinking and create the knowledge. The values (or perhaps qualities in this case) of people who engage with science play a large part in the thinking and knowledge creation for explaining the natural world. Human qualities such as; curiosity, creativity, open mindedness, and the ethical analysis and reporting of data and scientific ideas need to be promoted to science learners. In this way science learners are encouraged to become more aware of the role that these qualities play in generating new knowledge. This resource will help to explore three of these human qualities as they relate to science education:

  • Creativity
  • Open Mindedness
  • Curiosity


Creativity, particularly in thinking, is characterised by it’s apparent lack of connection to other ideas. Phrases such as random thoughts, thinking outside the box, guesses, intuition are often attributes of creativity. In the creative process it is important to not place parameters around the thinking if creativity is to be promoted.

Framing Questions:

  • What role does creativity have in learning science?
  • When is it appropriate to be creative?

Rewarding creative thinking in the classroom

Earlier in this lesson, the class had been introduced to a new topic, the respiratory system. The teacher ran a brainstorm session, asking the students to suggest anything they knew about the respiratory system and she recorded all of their suggestions on the board. The students were asked to make their own concept map by first taking the words that were collected from the brainstorm and categorizing them into two categories: structure and function. The students are set to work on this task.

Things to consider about creativity:

  • Are these examples of promoting creativity?
  • How do the strategies that the teacher in video is using relate to scientific literacy?
  • How does the teacher in the video encourage the students to reflect on the importance of creativity and its role in science?

Written Case:
Bouncing – Melissa Baros [Learning about things that bounce] ( .pdf 245 kB)

Audio Story:
Exploring the behavior of cockroaches (.mp3, 1.47 MB)


Open Mindedness is being receptive to the alternative and different ideas and opinions presented by others. It is also attributable to looking at data in alternative ways.

Framing Questions:

  • How do you encourage your students to consider that there could be more than one answer?
  • When is it appropriate to be open minded?

Pedigree and inheritance

On the day before this class was filmed, the students used a computer simulation to collect data to answer several questions set for homework. The teacher commences the lesson with a brief class discussion about the similarities and differences between two of the questions.

The teacher then moves on to another activity that is explained as being a way of consolidating their understanding and use of the terms autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, x-linked dominant and x-linked recessive. The students are given 4 pedigree charts to discuss in pairs and then asked to decide which type of inheritance is affecting each pedigree and to justify their selection

Things to consider about open mindedness:

  • How do you encourage your students to focus on the strategies for working through the problem rather than the solution?
  • In what ways do you promote students’ ownership of learning?
  • How do you encourage acceptance of all ideas in your classroom?

Written Case:
Electric Circuits: the lure of the lolly – Athena Bombas [How difficult is it to encourage students to be open minded? ] ( .pdf 122 kB)

Audio Story:
A teacher’s thoughts on open mindedness (.mp3, 3.32 MB)


Curiosity relates not only to questioning, but consideration of the wonder and mystery that is aroused when attempting to provide explanations for phenomena that occur in the natural world.

Framing Questions:

  • What role do student’s interests play in learning science?
  • How do you engage your students in learning science?

Chemical and physical change

During the previous lesson, this class had made sherbet and had been told that they could test it in any way that they wanted. Some students mixed it with water, others heated it in a crucible and of course some tasted it.

This was a lesson of discovery devoted to students exploring possibilities. The lesson that was filmed begins with a link to the previous one as the teachers asks “why does the sherbet fizz in your mouth?”…

Things to consider about curiosity:

  • What would it look like if you incorporated the idea of exploration by students into your teaching?
  • In what ways is curiosity linked to scientific literacy?
  • How does the teacher in the video incorporate or promote student questions?

Written Case:
Beyond just doing science activities – Lyn Hyland [Exploring students’ questions about sound] ( .pdf 215 kB)

Audio Story:
On engaging students in genetics (.mp3, 1.77 MB)

Scientists make careful observations to collect as data and analyse to look for patterns in an effort to explain what is happening in the world around us. They often work together to build a shared understanding and look for simple, effective ways to communicate their work so that it can be utilised by many people. The promotion of values such as; empiricism, parsimony, reliability, accuracy, science community and search for evidence helps learners to understand the role that these values play in making science, what it is.

This resource will allow two of these values to be explored as they relate to science education:

  • Accuracy
  • Parsimony
  • Reliability
  • Empiricism
  • Science Community


The accuracy of a measurement system is the degree of closeness of measurements of a quantity to its actual value. This is different from precision, which is the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results. This precision of a measurement system is often also called reproducibility or repeatability.

Framing Questions:

  • Why is it important to promote accuracy in a science classroom?
  • How do students perceive accuracy and its relevance to the data they collect during science classes?

How do we make data collection more accurate?

This class had been working on the different ways to extract copper from copper ore. Students were put into groups and then asked to design their own experiment to extract the pure metal from a sample of copper ore.

The lesson that was filmed is the students first day working on their experiments. The teacher starts the lesson with a discussion about what the students might consider in an effort to keep their data collection accurate.

Things to consider about accuracy:

  • What connection does valuing accuracy have with scientific literacy?
  • What strategies do you use to promote accuracy with your students?

Written Case:
As smooth as silk – Mary Howard [The benefits of keeping silk worms in the classroom] ( .pdf, 130 kB)

Audio Story:
Talking about accuracy (.mp3, 568 kB)


When there are competing explanations (hypotheses, models, systems etc), the simplest explanation, model or system, that accounts for most of the data is accepted for use.

Framing Questions:

  • Why is it important to promote parsimony in a science classroom?

Using concise explanations

Prior to this lesson being filmed, this class completed a titration to establish the level of acetic acid in different brands of vinegar. The class has discussed the variety of ways they went about completing the experiment, how they gathered and recorded their data and what they may use the data for.

The discussion then turns to how this information may be used in industry, who might use this information, what they might use it for and why this could be important.

Things to consider about parsimony:

  • What will a clearer understanding of parsimony allow teachers and students to do?
  • What strategies does the teacher in this video use to promote parsimony?

Written Case:
Road science made interesting – Dianne Byers [Using a distance v’s time graph to describe a story] ( .pdf 146 KiB)

Audio Story:
Talking about parsimony (.mp3, 2.72 MiB)

This derives from the Latin lex parsimoniae which broadly translates to the law of parsimony, law of economy or law of succinctness. In more recent times the phrase Ockam’s razor has been used to describe this value of science. The razor is a principle that suggests we should tend towards the simplest explanation until such simplicity of explanation can be substitute for greater explanatory power. Its (the razor’s) value lies in the justification of deciding between the competing explanations. Such justifications need to also take account of the plausibility, fruitfulness and robustness of such explanations.

Science is constantly changing and developing in an effort to manage the issues that society faces. We/Humans need to keep challenging current theories and practices so that better/more useful explanations can be found. Science may not always provide us with the best/optimal answers. We need to continually question and challenge what is being presented to us.

Cognitive values such as; rationality, scepticism and search for evidence play a role in helping learners to understand what it means to think critically about an issue.

This resource will allow two of these values to be explored as they relate to science education:

  • Scepticism
  • Search for Evidence
  • Rationality


Scepticism relates to a general attitude of doubt or questioning of knowledge, opinions, beliefs presented as facts or claims that are made. Scepticism in science is often seen in the practice of subjecting beliefs and claims to scientific investigation in order to support their reliability.

Framing Questions:

  • What role do beliefs have in science?
  • What role do claims have in science?

What advantages are there in being sceptical?

The students in this clip have just watched a YouTube clip of a man going down a giant water slide and being projected off the end of a ramp into a very small children’s blow up wading pool. The students are asked what they think they could measure from this experience and are strongly encouraged to support their claims.

Things to consider about scepticism:

  • What strategies do you use in your classroom to encourage students to support their claims with evidence?
  • How do the students make judgements about what to believe when confronted with different claims that are supported with evidence?

Written Case:
Science is fuzzy – Stephen Walsh [Extending the notions of science] ( .pdf, 102 kB)

Audio Story:
The role of scepticism (.mp3, 1.02 MB)

Search for Evidence

Data (and sets of data from multiple sources) that are considered reliable and valid are regarded as evidence. When the evidence supports outcomes that are, for example, impractical or expensive to implement, a higher level is demanded of the quality (validity and reliability) of that evidence.

Framing Questions:

  • How can data become evidence?
  • How should we deal with contradictory evidence?

The difference between data and evidence

During their previous lesson this year 11 chemistry class completed a titration to establish the level of acetic acid in different brands of vinegar. The class has discussed the variety of ways they went about completing the experiment, how they gathered and recorded their data and what they may use the data for.

Things to consider about the search for evidence:

  • How do you help your students to appreciate the difference between data and evidence?
  • What strategies can you use to encourage your students to seek and value evidence?

Written Case:
Comsumer science: is it real science? – Toula Tripaydonis [Students in search of evidence] ( .pdf, 95 kB)

Audio Story:
A discussion about data and evidence (.mp3, 5.22 MB)

Science makes an important contribution to society, through the members of society who are scientists, but also in its role in helping to solve and sometimes create problems that provide challenges that society need to resolve.

When promoted with science learners, societal values such as the interdependence between science, technology and humans assist science learners to view science as a useful tool for exploring their understanding that is applicable in many contexts.

This resource will allow the value of interdependence to be explored as it relates to science education:

  • Interdependence


Interdependence is characterized by the notion that each idea (or understanding) in science is complete in itself, but its meaning can be enhanced by linking it with other ideas so that the collective understanding is more beneficial than each of the separate ideas. for example, energy is conceived differently as a construct in each of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. If these different interpretations of energy are viewed in a holisitic way, then the use of the construct of energy becomes more functional.

Framing Questions:

  • Why does it matter that you link classroom science with how science is used in society?
  • How does understanding the links between what is being taught in the classroom and what is happening in the world enable you to explain something more clearly?

The Geelong Wizard

This class are commencing a unit of work on electricity. The teacher is taking the students through a series of demonstrations that focus on static electricity.

He is encouraging the students to think about and discuss experiences they have had with static electricity in their everyday experiences and then talks about an interesting news item he once heard.

Things to consider about interdependence:

  • How do you help students to see the connection between what they are doing in the science classroom and how science is used in society?
  • How do you assist students to see that there can be a diverse range of explanations for the issues that we face? (For example, climate change.)


Audio Story:
Understanding what chemists do (.mp3, 3 MB)

Audio Story:
Seeing the relevance (.mp3, 2 MB)