What is Science Literacy and Why is it Important?

Science Literacy at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln: the right focus at the right time

What is Science Literacy and Why is it Important?

Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources focus on science literacy opens the doors to the university

Interviews with Kathleen Lodl and Mark Balschweid by Mary Garbacz

All eyes are on the future, when there is more and more information to consume, available through a voice-activated device or the click of a touch-sensitive button, with only the human brain determining whether that information is fact or fiction. 

The people who will make those decisions already are taking over businesses and leadership positions, managing billions of dollars and charting the course for the future of the world. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) has long been planning to be sure it has the science-based information to be successful so future challenges can be met, like feeding 9 billion people by 2050.

DEFINING SCIENCE LITERACY

Science literacy is knowledge of science, as well as the scientific framework by which people make decisions based on facts, research and knowledge, not on opinion or hearsay, according to Kathleen Lodl, associate dean of Nebraska Extension. Lodl, along with Mark Balschweid, head of the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication, provides leadership for the IANR Science Literacy priority area. They are charged with bringing together the best minds across the university to think about the future and engage outside partners in science literacy efforts. 

The IANR Science Literacy Initiative includes a cross-disciplinary group of scientists focusing on four goals: improving science literacy among university students; preparing pre-kindergarten through high school students for careers; informing and engaging partners and stakeholders about programs and research; and supporting the public as they interpret, reason and make decisions. 

“This is the kind of work for which we’re known and that people rely on for their land-grant university system to do,” Lodl said. The Science Literacy Initiative is bringing together all the academic disciplines and the three land-grant missions of teaching, research and outreach, she added. The system comes together with university researchers who are global experts; with outreach/Extension specialists; and with experts in formal teaching from pre-kindergarten through college, Lodl said.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?

Science literacy includes academic disciplines like agriculture; plant and animal production systems; natural resources; nutrition; physical, mental and emotional health; and early childhood education, among other topics. It all fits in with helping people make informed decisions, Lodl said, and the cross-disciplinary nature of the initiative is exciting. 

“The public is starting to get a greater understanding of science. That’s one of the jobs of this initiative,” Lodl said. The IANR initiative intends to broaden public understanding. 

The whole concept of “inquiry” includes why one holds certain beliefs, she said. 

“Getting the facts and being able to discern fact from opinion or myth, and then using those facts to make a decision – that’s really what science literacy is about,” she explained. 

The six IANR priority areas were created through stakeholder input, Balschweid said, taking into account the research strengths in the IANR. Those priority areas are: 

  Science Literacy

  Stress Biology

  Healthy Humans

  Healthy Systems for Agricultural Production and Natural Resources

  Computational Sciences

  Drivers of Economic Vitality for Nebraska

Balschweid said the IANR takes every opportunity to “throw open the doors of the university and invite the general public in by communicating the science that’s happening here.” He cited Streaming Science, a college student-driven, project-based science literacy program that introduces public audiences to real-world scientists and critical agricultural and environmental research through interactive communication platforms. 

WHY SCIENCE LITERACY?

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to discern between what is fake and what is real, so we need to communicate the science in ways the public can understand and have that information be timely and relevant to the decisions they have to make,” Balschweid said.

A recent survey conducted by Oklahoma State University, for example, revealed that half of the respondents want food labels to indicate if DNA is in the food. The concern, Balschweid pointed out, is that all living things have DNA, so food prepared from plants or animals will contain DNA.

Science literacy is critical to the public, Lodl said. Scientific knowledge helps people to be better-informed and make the best decisions possible with the best available knowledge. In the long run, she added, great decisions are based on reliable, factual research.

The IANR focus on science literacy begins with pre-kindergarten and extends to people of all ages. 

“Nebraska places a high value on education and reasoning and thinking,” she said. “We believe we are one of the first institutions in the country that is looking at science literacy so holistically,” she added. 

Lodl said scientific inquiry education reaches into formal school systems, into stakeholder groups, into Extension and 4-H and into other youth-serving organizations. Activities are designed to teach decision-making and inquiry, how information is gathered and how one makes the best possible decisions with the information available. Young people may learn about science through growing a soybean or through wearable technologies or robotics – anything to interest them in the scientific process, she said.

“Young people are a big target population; we want to instill science literacy at a young age. If we start with youth, it becomes ingrained and part of their lives,” she explained. That is important, she said, because future careers need a background in scientific engagement. “We need to create that pipeline of new workers that is going to fill the needs of the state and help our state’s economy down the road,” she added. 

EVERYONE CAN HELP

“All of us who work in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources continually tell people about the good things that are being done,” Balschweid said. 

He recently had that opportunity when he found himself on a plane, seated next to a man who said he had heard that Nebraska farms were all owned by “soul-less” corporations. 

“I was able to share with him that simply isn’t the case, and that farms in Nebraska are mostly family farms that have been in the family for generations,” he said. “I also told him the people who farm the land and steward the environment would never want to engage in activities that would degrade the land, animals or environment. Yes, we want to maximize the efficiency of the resources, but never to the point that we would not be able to be sustainable for generations to come.”