6 Oct 2017

Science Literacy or....What?

By Claire Eamer
Think scientists are scary? How about sitting
down with a few scientists at your local pub?
Not so scary after all, eh? Pint of Science is
one of several organizations making that happen.

A couple of days ago, I found myself in a Twitter conversation with an assortment of science communicators and scientists (sometimes, but not always, the same thing). We were talking about promoting science literacy. Or maybe not - because what do we actually mean by science literacy?

The conversation was sparked by a previous Twitter exchange, summarized in this blog post by the fiercely scientific and communicative Sarah BoonIs it time to stop using the phrase “science literacy”?

And that, in turn, started with a comment from Canada's new chief science adviser, Dr. Mona Nemer. She expressed concern that too many Canadians still think science is a matter of opinion rather than fact. She added, “I think that we need to develop a better dialog and better ways of exciting the youth about science.”

Imagine getting to play with all those cool science toys
at BC's Science World or Toronto's Ontario Science Centre,
without having to make way for scores of rowdy kids. It can
happen. Check your local science centre for an adults-only
night. And if there isn't one, ask them why not!
Now I spend a lot of time writing about science for kids and talking to kids about science - and most of them, I find, are already excited by science. Kids want to know how things work, where they come from, what they're made of - all the things that scientists want to know. And there are plenty of ways for kids to get involved with science: books, magazines, toys, museums, science centres, natural history clubs, space camps, and school itself.

But adults are another case entirely. I've met adults who are sure they can't understand science - are even afraid of science. And often intelligent, accomplished adults who are thoroughly competent in their own fields. At some point between the curious child and accomplished, competent adult, something has happened to convince them that they can't understand things scientific.

How about a science poetry slam? Or stand-up science comedy?
Watch as science lovers battle to communicate science.
What's on the line? Pride, fame, and eternal glory. And it's all
happening at a Science Slam near you.
They lack - in the most commonly used term - science literacy. That sounds awful, doesn't it? As if they can barely read and write. But, of course, that's not the case. Veteran science writer/broadcaster Jay Ingram suggests dropping the term science literacy entirely. No one's really sure what it means in practical terms, and it sounds like a chore, a duty, another unwelcome obligation in an already busy life.

I'd love to see grown-ups having as much fun with science as kids do. And why not? Imagine digging for real dinosaur bones, helping excavate a genuine archaeological site, peering at tiny critters through a microscope or enormous planets through a telescope. Imagine getting to play with all those gizmos and gadgets in science centres without having to compete with hyperactive eight-year-olds. That would be fun!

And, increasingly, you can do it. Science centres and museums and science communication organizations are recognizing that adults need some science fun too. Remember that Twitter conversation that started this bit of musing? It led to a bouquet of recommendations for organizations that are putting the fun back into science for us grown-ups. Click on the links under the images scattered around this post to learn more.

And - please - if you know of a great science event for grown-ups, add it in the Comments section below. Forget science literacy - let's have fun!

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