A recent research study approached the idea of scientific literacy by assuming that a limited number of vocabulary words were important for the average person to understand scientific articles. Brossard,Dominique and Shanahan, James. Do They Know What They Read? Building a Scientific Literacy Measurement Instrument Based on Science Media Coverage. (pdf) They emphasize not general knowledge, but what a person in the U.S. should know to understand general media coverage of scientific ideas. Specifically, they identify the most common science vocabulary words used in popular media.
The study assumes that science literacy is the ability to understand science as covered in mass media. A scientifically literate person, then, would be able to read and understand popular explanations of scientific and technology-related ideas.
After an explanation of their underlying assumptions, they say, “Given the above assumptions, it makes little sense to test whether people understand concepts that are not discussed frequently in the mass media.”
Using the Oxford Dictionary of Science (Isaacs, Daintith, and Martin 1999) as a source of possible scientific terms, they sampled a week’s worth of news articles and came up with a list of the most common scientific terms in the articles. Then, they tested comprehension of these common terms.
One advantage of this type testing is the ability to constantly update the list of terms, as science develops and the conversations around scientific ideas develop, extend, change, or contract. Of interest, is the Appendix A and B, which are examples of scientific literacy tests based upon the conventional idea of understanding ideas and this new idea of a targeted list of vocabulary words.
Testing vocabulary: 1. A star that over a period of only a few days becomes 100 – 1000 times brighter than it once was, is called a [nova].
Testing knowledge: 1. All radioactivity is man-made. True False
Here are the scientific vocabulary words used in the study (in order of frequency of appearance in popular scientific articles): aluminum, satellite, solar energy, nuclear weapons, lightning, earthquake, watt, fiber optics, genetic engineering, protein, microprocessor, xrays, gram, flora, irrigation, and LSD.
How should we test scientific literacy? Vocabulary used in mass media, or knowledge of scientific concepts?