January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Science Literacy and Civic Engagement Go Hand in Hand

Posted: Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

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

Introduction

Science is an integral part of the most complex social and political issues of our time. Concerns such as global warming, food and water security, and medical research show that science must be a driving force in addressing the environmental, economic, and social problems of our society. As such, members of this society must be prepared with sufficient scientific literacy to responsibly engage with such issues (Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy, 2007). Today’s youth are in need of tools, experience, and scientific knowledge to face these challenges. While classroom education provides core knowledge, informal science programs may be well-placed to help make the connections between science and civic engagement (Fenichel & Schweingruber, 2010)

Benefits of Linking Science Education with Civic Engagement

It is important that science education programming be relevant and useful to learners, providing them a context for understanding and using scientific information (Millar, 2008). For instance, service learning projects allow youth the opportunity to identify problems and provide solutions. Issues of poverty may lead youth to develop food-producing gardens that double as living laboratories. Campus litter may inspire new recycling projects that provide lessons in natural resources and climate change. Furthermore, encouraging students to keep up on current events provides endless fodder for thoughtful discussions on a plethora of science-related topics.

Linking societal issues to fields of science also has the potential to peak interest in related careers. A recent report by Sparks and Honey, a marketing firm, stated that 60% of Generation Z want jobs that have a social impact, compared to 39% of Millennials (Kingston, 2014). Civic engagement in science education provides students the chance to connect the dots between their interest in science and their desire to change the world. For example, the young person in class who likes looking at bugs may learn the possibilities in medical entomology and grow to research the cure for the Zika Virus.

Moreover, civic engagement not only benefits the youth, but communities as a whole. Involving youth in service opportunities results in contributions to the community and advances the young persons’ development (Brennan et al., 2007). Ideally, the aforementioned garden will yield crops for the local food bank and the recycling project will keep the school grounds spotless. By engaging youth fully in community-based change efforts, they also learn to function effectively in society (Nitzberg, 2005).

The Role of Nonformal Education

Twenty-first-century society requires a scientifically literate citizenry (Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy, 2007). However, it has been shown time and time again that scientific literacy among youth populations is low, and informal science programs can help attend to this issue. One example of this is the 4-H Youth Development Program – a national, nonformal education organization for individuals aged 5–19. Programmatically, 4-H focuses on advancing positive youth development through experiential educational opportunities that include civic engagement. Complementing its century-long history of offering science projects and programs ranging from geology to animal science, forestry to computer science, National 4-H established the 4-H Science Mission Mandate in an effort to expand and strengthen 4-H science education efforts through state-based 4-H programs (Schmiesing, 2008).

The University of California 4-H Youth Development Program responded to the National 4-H Science Mission Mandate by commencing a statewide 4-H Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Initiative. Organizationally, California 4-H science programming is grounded in constructivist-based pedagogical strategies. Specifically, learning opportunities utilize guided inquiry-based instruction embedded in a five-step experiential learning cycle that places an emphasis on the authentic application of new knowledge and skills—the point where civic engagement intersects with 4-H science programming. In fact, in defining scientific literacy, the California 4-H STEM initiative included a basic component of “Contribution through Applied Participation” (Smith, Worker, Ambrose, & Schmitt-McQuitty, 2015) This component seeks to provide application of knowledge and skills in authentic contexts to help individuals gain a deeper understanding of scientific concepts and develop their abilities to think critically (Jones, 2012). This is particularly relevant to the development of citizenship and life skills through civic engagement opportunities. Specifically, youth apply new knowledge and skills in ways that help address authentic community needs they have identified as important. This takes shape in many ways: teens teaching younger students robotics; community outreach about zoonotic diseases; educational mentoring for students within the juvenile justice system; and many more.

Programs like these intentionally include the social aspects of science by engaging youth directly in relevant community issues. Such civic engagement is essential to helping develop an informed public that is faced ever more frequently with decisions on science-related public policy issues.

Read the full paper at Science Education and Civic Engagement at https://seceij.net/seceij/summer15/including_civic.html. 

References

Brennan, M. A., R.V. Barnett, &E. Baugh. (2007). Youth Involvement in Community Development: Implications and Possibilities for Extension. Journal of Extension 45(4).

Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century& Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. (2007). Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Fenichel, M., &H.A. Schweingruber. (2010). Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Jones, R.A. (2012). What Were They Thinking? Instructional Strategies That Encourage Critical Thinking. The Science Teacher, 79(3), 66–70.

Kingston, A. (2014, July). Get Ready for Generation Z. MacLean’s. Retrieved from: http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/get-ready-for-generation-z/.

Millar, R. (2008). Taking Scientific Literacy Seriously as a Curriculum Aim. Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching 9(2), 1–18.

Nitzberg, J. (2005). The Meshing of Youth Development and Community Building. Putting Youth at the Center of Community Building. New Directions for Youth Development, 106, 7–16.

Schmiesing, R.J. (2008). 4-H SET Mission Mandate. Washington, DC: United States Department of Food and Agriculture.

Smith, M.H., S.M. Worker, A.P. Ambrose, and L. Schmitt-McQuitty. (2015). ‘Anchor Points’ to Define Youth Scientific Literacy within the Context of California 4-H. California Agriculture 69(2), 77–82.

Emily Schoenfelder is the 4-H Youth Development Adviser, and Martin Smith is a Specialist in Cooperative Extension. Steven Worker is a 4-H Youth Development Adviser, and Andrea Ambrose, Director of Development Services. Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty is a 4-H Youth Development Adviser & County Director, and Kelley Brian is the Youth, Families and Communities Adviser. 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 California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

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

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Written by Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko is CSTA’s Executive Director.