What is Science Literacy?

What is Science Literacy?

University of Nebraska's Definition of Science Literacy: An enhanced capacity, both at the individual and collective levels, to make effective decisions grounded in STEM-informed analyses of complex, real-world challenges.

In the context of recent and going STEM education reform, the idea of ‘science literacy’ has served as a primary rationale and global vision for the impact of STEM education on society. The National Research Council defines science literacy as“knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity” (1996, p. 192). Internationally, this perspective is echoed in ongoing conversations about how global citizens should engage with disciplinary knowledge and practices. A common interpretation of this and similar definitions of science literacy is that by supporting students’ to learn science, they will naturally employ this knowledge as a tool to analyze and make effective decisions about challenging real-world issues. Conversations about science literacy often revolve around defining what baseline science everyone should know and how much knowledge is sufficient.

Yet, a sizeable body of empirical research continues to show that this perspective is over-simplistic in its assumptions about the nature of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. The utilization of abstract ideas or concepts in novel contexts is rarely observed, whether in K-12 classrooms, university classrooms, or the contexts of everyday life (Feinstein, 2010). As Mullen and Roth concisely state, “You can know all you need to know about your world and still not know what to do, which choices to make” (1991, pg. 1). A key distinction must therefore be made between supporting students simply to learn science and supporting students to learn to use science (Bybee, 2009). To truly foster science literacy amongst students and members of the public, we must go beyond simply helping them learn a pre-determined body of knowledge. Instead, they must be actively supported to learn to leverage and employ this scientific knowledge, negotiate its intersection with social, cultural, and economic values, to concretely identify relevant problems, evaluate real options for action, and move towards fundamentally different methods of accomplishing their goals. Science literacy, then, must fundamentally foreground decision-making about challenging real-world issues and how individuals mobilize science to support this process.


Bybee, R., McCrae, B., Laurie, R. (2009). PISA 2006: An assessment of scientific literacy. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(8), 865-883.

Feinstein, N. (2011). Salvaging science literacy. Science Education, 95(1), 168-185.

Mullen, J.D. Roth, B.M. (1991). Decision-making: Its logic and practice. Savage, Maryland:Rowman Littlefield.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, D.C.: The National Academy Press.

Science Literacy Framework

Science Literacy Framework

At UNL, we apply a theoretically-grounded perspective on science literacy to foster a scientifically literate society capable of making effective decisions grounded in STEM-informed analyses of complex, real-world challenges associated with food, fuel, water, landscape, and people issues. A framework for IANR Science Literacy is shown.

This framework is grounded by a set of underlying principles:

  • Feeding 9 billion people
  • An emphasis on natural and managed systems
  • Linked with standards for STEM teaching and learning
  • Partnership-driven

These principles provide a set of heuristics for interventions designed to foster and/or enhance science literacy in four domains: PK-12 education, higher education, the public, and organizational partners. In PK-12 contexts, interventions focused on enhanced curricular and instructional experiences for students in formal, informal, and non-formal settings, professional development for in-service teachers, and teacher education experiences for preservice teachers. Efforts at the post-secondary level focus on novel course-based and other experiences for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as professional development for faculty. Programs for the public engaged members of the public and stakeholders through extension and outreach activities. Finally, programs designed for partners emphasize stakeholder engagement, capacity-building, research translation, and policy guidance. Each of these areas is crucial for the long-term success of the Science Literacy Initiative.