About Activism or Education

Implications for Achieving
Science Literacy

by Dr. Cary I. Sneider, Vice President for Programs
Museum of Science, Science Park, Boston, MA 02114-1099

Presented at the International Geoscience and 
Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS 2000, IEEE) Conference 
in Honolulu, Hawaii, July 24-28, 2000.

In the post-Sputnik era the goal of science education in the United States was to produce more scientists. That meant rigorous science training that would enable the most brilliant students to rise to the top, and restore our country to its former position of world leadership in science and technology. 

Since then, the geopolitical and economic landscape has changed, and as a result, the primary goal of science education has shifted. While it is still important to attract the best and brightest to science and technical fields, society now recognizes that it is essential for everyone, regardless of their chosen vocation, to understand the fundamentals of science and technology. The phrase that has come to represent this level of understanding is “science literacy” (Bybee, 1997). 

But what does science literacy really mean? When referring to the English language, literacy means the ability to read and write. We would not consider a person who has memorized the Pledge of Allegiance to be literate in the English language if that person can neither read nor write English. Similarly, science literacy means understanding the fundamentals of science. We would not consider a person to be scientifically literate if they can name the nine planets in the Solar System, but haven’t the foggiest notion of what a planet is, or recognize that one of the planets is the Earth beneath their feet!

The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) defines science literacy in considerable detail. According to this important document, science literacy includes certain key concepts in the natural sciences, as well as how science relates to mathematics, technology, and other human endeavors. Science literacy also includes an understanding of the nature of science as well as inquiry skills such as designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and drawing valid conclusions from evidence. 

If we take the goal of science literacy seriously then we need to empower people to make their own decisions by providing them with accurate and comprehensive information and intellectual tools to apply scientific information to their own lives. In today’s presentation I will explain why this is important for our nation’s future, then give some examples of how environmental issues and science literacy can go hand-in-hand. 

The National Science Education Standards makes the case for science literacy as an important national goal as follows: Why is science literacy important? First, an understanding of science offers personal fulfillment and excitement—benefits that should be shared by everyone. Second, Americans are confronted increasingly with questions in their lives that require science information and science ways of thinking for informed decision making. And the collective judgment of our people will determine how we manage shared resources—such as air, water, and national forests. (National Research Council, 1996, page 11) 

In this key statement, the National Science Education Standards makes an explicit link between science literacy and stewardship of natural resources. 

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that an important purpose of formal and informal science education is to tell students how to manage natural resources. A great many instructional programs in schools and museum exhibits have just this purpose. With topics such as rain forest destruction, air and water pollution, over-fishing, whale hunting, clear-cut timber operations, urban sprawl, and extensive use of pesticides, these instructional programs bring to light commercial practices that impact the environment and deliver a simple message: Stop it now! 

However, in my view such simplistic presentations of complex environmental issues is counter to the goal of science literacy. Environmental issues are valuable as the focus of programs and exhibits aimed at improving science literacy, but only if they are presented so that they engage people’s thinking. 

For example, over the past decade I have been working on a high school science curriculum series entitled Global Systems Science (GSS) that is being printed and distributed by NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise. GSS is an interdisciplinary course for the first year of high school science. The first year of high school is a critical period in students’ lives. It is a time when they may become excited by science or turned off to it. It is also a time when their world is expanding to encompass the environment and society, and to begin to grasp the important role that they will play as future citizens. 

Global Systems Science involves students actively in learning. The course is not presented as a textbook, but rather a series of nine units, each of which tells a story of a complex environmental issue, and incorporates activities, discussions, and laboratory activities, as well as interviews with a selection of scientists, both men and women, from a variety of ethnic and educational backgrounds. The students are challenged to make intelligent, informed decisions on the issues, and to take personal actions that are consistent with their opinions. 

The purpose of the introductory unit, A New World View, is to introduce the systems approach to understanding how human activities interact with natural systems. The example selected as the centerpiece is the story of land use in the Pacific Northwest. Early chapters summarize the history of human impacts, beginning with how Native Americans changed forest ecosystems with fire, to the extensive clear-cutting of forests in the 19th century, and ending with the recent controversy over the purchase of old growth forests in California in a leveraged buyout. The holding company’s plan to clear-cut the Headwaters grove of old growth redwoods resulted in major demonstrations by environmentalists, efforts by Senator Feinstein, President Clinton, and others to purchase the land for posterity, and ballot initiatives that gave California voters the chance to decide if state funds should be used to preserve the ancient trees. 

A simplistic environmentalist version of this story would have been to honor the majesty of these huge, ancient trees, and their importance for wildlife, such as the spotted owl; and then proceed to vilify the timber company and financier who made the decision to cut them down for financial gain. Instead, we presented both sides of the story, quoting from several environmental groups, and from the lumber company’s office of public affairs. 

On the side of the lumber interests, the book describes the principle that a person has a right to cut down trees on their own property. It also points out that the lumber company in question had already donated large tracts of land with ancient redwoods to be used as state and national forests, and supported a variety of conservation programs to preserve wildlife. It also presents the viewpoint of the lumber workers who have to provide for their families, and summarizes interviews with wood scientists who explain that replacing old growth trees with faster-growing forests helps to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus reducing global warming. And, it quotes the politicians, Feinstein and Clinton, who proposed resolving the dilemma by purchasing the land and declaring them to be National Parks. 

At the end of the unit the students are asked to decide what advice they would give to California voters on the Headwaters referendum, helping them to recognize that soon they will be voters, faced with just these sorts of decisions. Recognizing that many students are already Web savvy, the materials identified several relevant Web sites, enabling the students to follow the still-unfolding controversy about the fate of the Headwaters Grove. 

We presented the various sides to this complex story because our goal was not to turn students into environmental activists, but to help students become more scientifically literate. From an ethical standpoint, we believe that students should be empowered to make their own choices, since that is the essence of a democracy. From a practical standpoint we realized that if we told students to act in a certain way, then someone else might come along with a more compelling story and change their minds. Consequently, we presented all the major arguments we could find on both sides of the controversy. 

We took a similar approach in the other units of the series, which focus on the topics: global climate change, ozone depletion in the stratosphere, the loss of biodiversity, human population growth, and use of natural resources for energy. These topics were selected because each offered a “window” into the scientific process, and illustrated the need for citizens to understand scientific issues and make intelligent, informed decisions that will affect the quality of life for future generations. 

In my view, it is equally important for informal education institutions—such as museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums—to present environmental issues in all their complexity, rather than to deliver a simple environmentalist message. For many adults, these informal venues are the only opportunities they have to learn about important issues of the day. In contrast to television and newspapers, which are extremely limited in the amount of information they can provide, science centers and museums have the opportunity to communicate issues in some depth, and can allow visitors to ask questions of staff or volunteers who are trained in communicating the many subtle facets of these issues. 

In the coming years it is likely that scientists and educators will work together more and more, sharing information and ideas that will result in programs for schools and museums. As informed individuals, both scientists and educators may have strong opinions about what needs to be done to preserve natural resources, and there may be a tendency to slide from education to activism without noticing it. While there is certainly a place in society for environmental activism, in my opinion, it is not in the nation’s schools or museums. The goal of science literacy can help maintain the focus on informing and empowering people to make intelligent choices, rather than urging them to act in a pre-determined way. 


The author wishes to acknowledge Dr. Thomas Suchanek of the Western Regional Center of the National Institute for Global Environmental Change for his support of the development of the GSS series, Dr. Nahid Khazenie of NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise, for supporting the printing and distribution of the series and encouraging the writing of this paper, and Dr. David Ellis, President and Director of the Museum of Science and Ms. Daisy Frederick, Staff Assistant at the Museum, for their helpful comments on the text.


  • Bybee, Rodger W., Achieving Scientific Literacy: From Purposes to Practices, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997. 
  • National Research Council, National Science Education Standards, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996. 
  • Sneider, Cary, Golden, Richard, and Barrett, Katharine, A New World View, Global Systems Science, Berkeley, CA: Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, printed and distributed by NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise, 1998.