September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Defining Scientific Literacy for Informal Science Education

Posted: Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

by Martin Smith, Steven Worker, Andrea Ambrose, Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty, Kelley Brian, Emily Schoenfelder


Scientific literacy is an important educational and societal goal (e.g., AAAS, 1990). Scientific literacy targets socially responsible and competent citizenry in that individuals should be able to participate in and contribute to a society (Hurd, 1998). While there is agreement that advancing scientific literacy among K-12 youth is important, measuring the construct has been problematic since there is no consensus about the meaning or the component parts of what it means to be scientifically literate (DeBoer, 2000). Although “a veritable deluge of definitions” (Roberts, 2007, p. 729) have been developed, historically, most definitions of scientific literacy have focused on generalized knowledge related to major science disciplines, principally content and processes germane to scientists (Roberts, 2007). These “within science” definitions represent a Vision I perspective of scientific literacy (Roberts, 2007). In contrast, a Vision II perspective focuses on situations positioned from the viewpoint of the citizen and concentrates on science-related issues or circumstances individuals may encounter in their lives.

Despite a lack of agreement as to a common meaning of scientific literacy, defining the construct or describing its component parts is critical for science program development (Roberts, 2007). The absence of a definition or an agreed-upon understanding makes it challenging to develop and compare programs, evaluate pedagogical strategies, and perform outcome evaluation. However, because science learning is a function of context, attempting to reach consensus on a universal definition is imprudent (Roberts, 2007). Therefore, any definition of scientific literacy “…should be conceptualized broadly enough…to pursue the goals that are most suitable for [a given] situation” (DeBoer, 2000, p. 582).

In informal science education programs – also referred to as out-of-school time or non-formal – science learning is contextualized and individualized (Falk, Storksdieck, & Dierking, 2007). Persons within a community develop “an understanding of a specific area of science because of his or her unique, personal set of needs and desires to know about this area of science” (p. 458). This is where individuals self-select activities that meet their needs and interests and where they experience excitement in learning about phenomena in the natural world. Informal science programs are guided by varying societal priorities and issues, ranging from local concerns in community-based programs to matters of significance at the state or national level among larger organizations (e.g., 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs). Understanding this makes it clear that a Vision II perspective provides informal programs a platform to help define scientific literacy. A Vision II perspective allows the component parts that comprise scientific literacy to be specified broadly enough that they address diverse societal issues, yet provide opportunities to develop science programming that is culturally relevant and specific to individual programmatic needs.

Anchor Points of Scientific Literacy for Informal Science Education

We developed a definition of scientific literacy for the context of California 4-H Youth Development that is also relevant for other informal science education programs. Through a systematic, analytical literature review (Steward, 2004), four anchor points were identified as the component parts to define scientific literacy (See Figure 1). The anchor points include science content, scientific reasoning skills, interest and attitude, and contribution through applied participation. Framed conceptually and metaphorically, these anchor points provide guideposts for curriculum and program development, teaching, and evaluation, and are flexible enough for adaptation to local needs and situations.

Figure 1. Anchor Points of Scientific Literacy for Informal Science Education

Figure 1. Anchor Points of Scientific Literacy for Informal Science Education

Contribution to the teaching and learning of science in informal contexts

Defining scientific literacy is critical for program development and evaluation. Emphasizing a Vision II approach (Roberts, 2007) provides opportunities for the systematic advancement of organizational efforts using an asset-based approach to understanding science. This strategy emphasizes relevant science knowledge that individuals learn for different reasons, including interest, need, and curiosity. The anchor points help frame the development and adaptation of curriculum materials; shape the content and design of educator professional development; and utilize consistent outcome goals for program evaluation.

Curriculum: Curriculum development and adaption can be driven by content associated with issues and situations important to clientele and geographic regions (anchor point I), while all curriculum materials, regardless of science content area, can attend to anchor points II (scientific reasoning skills), III (interest and attitudes), and IV (contribution through applied participation).

Professional Development: Secondly, utilizing a Vision II approach to defining scientific literacy provides the opportunity to design educator professional development opportunities that incorporate specific features considered critical to advancing the knowledge and skills of science educators: emphasis on subject matter knowledge (e.g., Penuel et al., 2007), and linking professional development opportunities to broader organizational goals (e.g., Loucks-Horsley et al., 2003).

Learning Assessment: Finally, the four anchor points provide a framework for consistent, measurable learning goals that can be used for evaluation. Summative evaluation can target the four anchor points through the use of appropriate evaluation methods. Specifically, the assessment of content understanding (anchor point I) and contributions made by learners through applied participation (anchor point IV) can be designed around the specific environmental, social, and economic issues. The assessment of scientific reasoning skills (anchor point II) and interest and attitudes (anchor point III) can be measured in all content areas and will provide the opportunity for comparisons across programs.


The definition of scientific literacy using four anchors is adaptable for use by other informal science programs, including local and national community-based organizations. Each program addresses particular needs relative to the youth populations they serve, thus the “focus-on-situations” approach could be modified and positioned around relevant situational issues. Specifically, anchor points I (Science Content) and IV (Contribution through Applied Participation) provide for adaptability within different contexts. Individual programs could identify relevant content and associated service learning projects that provide youth opportunities for applied participation. In comparison, anchor points II (Scientific Reasoning Skills) and III (Interest and Attitudes) are broad constructs that could remain consistent across diverse subject matter areas within different contexts.

Read the full paper at California Agriculture at or view the poster at


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1990). Science: For all Americans. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

DeBoer, G. (2000).  Scientific literacy: Another look at its historical and contemporary meanings and its relationship to science education reform.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(6), 582- 601.

Falk, J. H., Storksdieck, M., & Dierking, L. D. (2007). Investigating public science interest and understanding: Evidence for the importance of free-choice learning. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 455-469.

Hurd, P. D. (1998). Scientific literacy: New minds for a changing world. Science Education, 82, 407–416.

Loucks-Horsley, S., Love, N., Stiles, K., Mundry, S., & Hewson, P. (2003). Designing professional development for teachers of science and mathematics (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Corwin Press.

Penuel, W., Fishman, B., Yamaguchi, R., & Gallagher, L. (2007, December). What makes professional development effective? Strategies that foster curriculum implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 44(4), 921-958.. Roberts, D. A. (2007). Scientific literacy/Science literacy. In S.K. Abell & N.G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Science Education (pp. 729-780).

Roberts, D. A. (2007). Scientific literacy/Science literacy. In S.K. Abell & N.G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Science Education (pp. 729-780).

Steward, B. (2004). Writing a literature review. The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67(11), 495-500.

Martin Smith ( is a Specialist in Cooperative Extension, and Steven Worker ( is a 4-H Youth Development Advisor.

Andrea Ambrose is a Director of Development Services, and Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty is the 4-H Youth Development Advisor and County Director.

Kelley Brian is the Youth, Families and Communities Advisor, and Emily Schoenfelder is the 4-H Youth Development Advisor.

All are a part of the University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources, 4-H Youth Development Program. In addition, Steven, Martin, and Lynn are members of CSTA.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Leave a Reply


State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.