Two Post-Secondary Science Literacy Programs – A Quick Look

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In a recent Liberal Education article, Jon D. Miller, Director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan, recounts his findings on the substantial increase in civic scientific literacy [1] among adults in the United States. Because “the United States is the only country that requires all college students to take one or more science courses as a part of a general education requirement,” contends Miller, he attributes his positive findings to post-secondary science courses.

Miller’s conclusion makes sense to a certain extent but seems incomplete. For one, what about the rise of social media during the same period? Regardless, given my interest in promoting science literacy via academic libraries, here I want to follow Miller’s lead and take a quick look at two exemplary post-secondary science programs, one in the United States and the other in Canada, for inspirations.

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Science Literacy Program at University of Oregon

“Students taking typical college science courses listen to lectures, take notes, read textbooks and occasionally get to ask questions,” acknowledged Judith Eisen, Co-Director of the Science Literacy Program at University of Oregon. “People who teach science at the college level don’t typically receive a lot of training in pedagogy, so they teach as their professors taught,” added Eisen. “A lot of it—especially the lecture part—was not very interactive, and it’s sort of a passive learning experience.” Together with her colleagues across Departments of Biology, Chemistry & Biochemistry, Geological Sciences, Physics as well as the American English Institute, Eisen is working hard to develop creative methods to teach and inspire students about science and research.

Started in 2010 from a $1.5-million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, the interdisciplinary program “makes a real-world difference in the lives of UO students by building science literacy among undergraduate non-science majors, giving science students mentored teaching opportunities to implement active learning, and providing faculty with teaching professional development,” states its mission statement.

From Physics Behind the Internet to the award-winning Bread 101, the program not only offers general-education science courses that aim at making science interesting for non-science majors, but also helps inspire the next generation of science teachers and public communicators. What makes this program remarkable is its mentored, co-teaching opportunities for Undergraduate Scholars and Graduate Fellows to practice the theory of teaching science and effective communication strategies for audiences of non-scientists. In addition to a weekly Journal Club, the program enables and assists faculty to improve teaching techniques using evidence-based pedagogy to promote science literacy through interactive, inquiry-based learning.

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Honours Integrated Science (iSci) Program at McMaster University

“Canadians’ science literacy ranks 1st among 35 countries,” reads a recent CBC News headlines. Despite the gender gap, regional disparity, and the cited lack of leadership in both formal and informal science education, the evidence shows that Canada overall has a strong science culture and Canadians are actively engaged in learning about science. At McMaster University, the Honours Integrated Science (iSci) Program is delivering an innovative, interdisciplinary, research-based, undergraduate science education experience that provides students with knowledge and skills to excel in their future careers.

With its first cohort started back in 2009 and an enrollment limit of 60 students per year, a major component of the award-winning, four-year program centers on supervised, inquiry-based and project-oriented learning. According to its program structure, “[e]ssential knowledge and skills from each of the fundamental scientific disciplines will be linked partly through ‘thematic modules’ that emphasize the overlapping content between discipline areas.” Featuring field trips, an annual student-run symposium, Dragons’ Den-style pitch presentations, an active student blog and social events that showcase students’ artistic talents, the program emphasizes “independent learning, leadership, lab skills, and scientific literacy,” praised iSci alumnus Solomon Barkley.

The thing that caught my eyes though is the program’s contact address: H.G. Thode Library, 306. Upon further investigation, I learned that iSci is staffed with an embedded Services Librarian! From just-in-time information literacy sessions and adaptation of ICT and new media to learning space accommodation, the involvement of a dedicated librarian “allows students to appreciate the importance of library and information science and its links to overall, effective scientific communication” [2]. Let’s see if I could arrange an interview for some first-hand insights…

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[1] Civic scientific literacy enables citizens to actively engage in the public discourse about the moral-ethical issues of scientific discoveries and to have an influence over governments’ decision making (Shen, 1975).

Shen, B. S. P. (1975). Scientific literacy and the public understanding of science. In S. B. Day (Ed.), The communication of scientific information (pp. 44-52). Basel: Karger.

[2] Colgoni, A., & Eyles, C. (2010). A new approach to science education for the 21st century. EDUCAUSE Review, 45(1), 10-11. Retrieved July 22, 2016, from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2010/2/a-new-approach-to-science-education-for-the-21st-century

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