Science is a social activity that reflects human traits like curiosity, creativity, integrity, and skepticism. As we move into the 21st century, using science to solve humanity’s greatest challenges and improve the human condition will require scientific literacy that supports these qualities. Developing scientific literacy requires meaningful and engaging instruction that incorporates key components:
- Problem-based learning (PBL) is a style of active learning in which a student learns about a subject through the experience of problem solving – not through a lecture, assignment or exercise. Working in groups on “real world” science challenges, students identify what they already know, what they need to know, and how and where to access new information that may lead to resolution of the problem. The role of the educator is to facilitate learning by acting as a guide and mentor, rather than a source for “solutions.” PBL engages students in solving a problem with multiple solutions like a scientist in a real-world context. Ultimately, it encourages students to engage in active learning rather than acting as the passive recipients of information that they receive from teachers. PBL increases student learning by prompting them to use higher-order thinking skills. Students who have engaged in the type of PBL experiences that VISTA provides have been shown to score higher on science achievement tests. Not only is problem-based learning sound pedagogy; it is also instrumental in providing marginalized students an environment that springboards their learning to close achievement gaps in science, technology and mathematics.
- The nature of science, the next key component, posits that the natural world is understandable. It then explains how scientists answer questions posed by observing the natural world and acknowledges the role creativity plays in science. It acknowledges that scientific knowledge is based upon evidence; that it can change over time; and that creativity plays an important role in science. Understanding the nature of science is a critical aspect of science education and necessary for achieving scientific literacy.
- Scientific inquiry is another key component of scientific literacy. It is an active learning process in which students ask scientific questions to help them answer a research question through data analysis. Inquiry demands critical thinking to identify assumptions and weigh alternative explanations, which requires an understanding of the aforementioned nature of science. Inquiry science education is a crucial technique for attending to student interest through the type of hands-on, problem-based constructivist lesson designs that require students to solve real science problems.
- Finally, using hands-on science for student instruction bolsters student achievement in science, and is critical for showing students how, using real science materials, to advance science process skills and science content knowledge. What’s more, engaging students in hands-on science at least once a week clearly improves student achievement in science. Engaging them once a day improves achievement significantly more. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently underscored this. Unfortunately, according to their Nation’s Report Card, only 16% of students receive access to hands-on science every day. Furthermore, studies show that most teachers have little experience designing and implementing problem-based learning lessons.
VISTA helps teachers explicitly link nature of science concepts to hands-on, problem-based learning lessons that involve observation, inference, prediction, measurement, and classification. These lessons require reflection, group discussion and debate, and scientific inquiry.
VISTA's professional development programs work to improve science education by educating teachers on appropriate student-centered lesson plans to investigage real-world science problems; by educating school division science coordinators on the importance of effective science education; and much more.