Refine teaching to improve scientific literacy: Biologist studies Australian and American systems

October 5, 2012

Biologist Karen Burke Da Silva (pictured), who recently returned from a Churchill Fellowship in America, is on a quest to increase Australia's levels of scientific literacy.

Scientific literacy, Ms Burke Da Silva says, consists of attaining the knowledge to understand the range of scientific issues and debates affecting society, from global warming to stem cells and cloning.

The benefits of scientific literacy can operate at the level of the individual, such as understanding options for medical treatment, through to broader issues, such as an appreciation of the vulnerability of ecosystems.

Under the current Australian system, students can give up science even before completing high school.

"Australia has a much lower scientific literacy than most countries in the Western world," said Ms Burke Da Silva, who is Associate Dean of and Learning in the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

By contrast, the American university system requires all university students to study science for at least one semester, which prompted Ms Burke Da Silva to visit the US on a Churchill Fellowship.

While the strategy results in higher levels of in the general population, Ms Burke Da Silva said surprisingly little thought has been given in the US to adapting science teaching specifically for non-scientists; teaching 'dumbed-down' versions of the core science curricula is assumed to be enough.

Ms Burke Da Silva believes a focus on refining teaching methods and content of first-year science topics is a key to improving students' engagement, retention levels and . At Flinders she teaches a topic called Biology and Society, which encourages students to analyse scientific information and provide critiques of contemporary science-based issues.

She is part of a growing Australia-wide network of university teachers that aims to strengthen student interest in science from the start of their degrees.

While many of the first-year students in biology and other sciences at Flinders come from courses that are not science-based, achieving a broader understanding of science and its role in society is just as important for those who intend to make it a career, Ms Burke Da Silva said.

"It's a good idea for to apply their knowledge beyond what they see through a microscope or in the lab," she said.

Explore further: Scientific literacy happens -- when students think for themselves

Related Stories

How to advance scientific literacy

September 3, 2009

Society needs science, and scientists need an informed, thoughtful, and open-minded citizenry. Thus, the obvious dependence of American society on science is strikingly inconsistent with the low level of scientific literacy ...

U.S. public's knowledge of science still has a long way to go

February 16, 2011

Amid concerns about the lagging math and science performance of American children, American adults are actually scoring higher than they did 20 years ago on a widely used index of civic scientific literacy, according to a ...

Recommended for you

Biologists trace how human innovation impacts tool evolution

November 24, 2015

Many animals exhibit learned behaviors, but humans are unique in their capacity to build on existing knowledge to make new innovations. Understanding the patterns of how new generations of tools emerged in prehistoric societies, ...

How experienced buyers can mitigate economic bubbles

November 19, 2015

(—Over the last decade, many people got a tough primer on the effects of economic bubbles, as the bursting of the 2007-2008 housing bubble sent shockwaves through most of the major world economies. But property ...

First Londoners were multi-ethnic mix: museum

November 23, 2015

A DNA analysis of four ancient Roman skeletons found in London shows the first inhabitants of the city were a multi-ethnic mix similar to contemporary Londoners, the Museum of London said on Monday.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (3) Oct 05, 2012
First Grade is not to early to begin introducing Scientific Words, terms, Names and Subjects, along with some relevance 'sprinkled into' the discussion. Such approach could provoke those with inquisitive minds to begin their own journey toward enlightenment, perhaps attracting earlier Mentoring for interested/promising students.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.