Scientific Literacy through Science Journalism (SciJourn)

August 31, 2010

The SciJourn project investigates the teaching of science journalism as a vehicle for improving high school students' scientific literacy and engagement. The project brings St. Louis area youth into a real newsroom environment as they produce original content for both print and online versions of the newspaper SciJourner: Teens Engaging Science through Journalism.

Q&A with SciJourn

Dr. Joseph Polman, the Principal Investigator on this project, and Co-Pis Dr. Wendy Saul, Dr. Alan Newman, and Cathy Farrar answered a few of our questions about the challenges associated with this work, their approach to the changing nature of journalism and information sharing, the influence national literacy standards, and finally...what's next!

What are some of the challenges in transforming students’ interests into science news and how do you approach those challenges?

We have faced educational and “school cultural” challenges to implementing various elements of the project. For example, journalistic writing emphasizes looking for what is new and citing multiple, credible sources, but students (and even some teachers) used to relying on textbooks have a poor grasp of how to determine the credibility of a nontraditional source let alone finding multiple ones; lack Internet searching skills, especially for scientific topics; and are unfamiliar with “up to date” as a criterion for information or how to handle new science, which may be controversial or inconclusive. We tackle these issues in a summer professional development course for participating teachers and arm them with a host of prepared “mini-lessons” that model approaches and raise awareness of these issues.

Other challenges are more daunting. In underserved school districts, access to computers in school or at home may be limited. Or students lack the math skills to understand statistical information. Because our approach is flexible, we can create “work arounds”. For example, students can interview easily accessible local, credible experts, such as the school nurse, local county agent, or family doctor.

Although improving writing skills are not our main focus, we find that students drilled in report writing are often baffled by the structure of a journalistic article. Even more challenging is getting them and their teachers to focus on content rather than spelling or grammar when editing and revising articles. Again, mini-lessons and summer professional development, as well as reading the writings of other teens on our online news site, scijourner.org, and in our print newspaper, SciJourner, provide a wealth of models for students and teachers.

How does the changing nature of journalism and information sharing change the way you think about scientific literacy (if at all)?

The changing nature of information sharing and journalism has led us to focus on Internet-based sources of information, and on involving youth in participatory media. The changing information landscape of the 21st century increases the scale of the challenge facing individuals in our society to be critical consumers of science and technology information. It has always been important for scientifically literate individuals to search effectively for information, understand the credibility and expertise of various sources, assess the factual accuracy of scientific and technical information, understand how information is relevant to themselves and others, and contextualize the information to what is already known and broader societal impacts. But the amount of data, information, and opinion available through the Internet is ever-increasing, and thus there is a need for today's educated person to be familiar with Internet tools, the kinds of sources available, and the ever-changing conventions of today's media.

The shift toward participatory media on the web also provides an opportunity for scientifically literate individuals to engage in the production of scientific and technical information meant to inform others. Today’s high school students have increased opportunities for citizen journalism and other forms of direct participation in democratic debates, and SciJourn provides a supportive context in which to foster positive models of these forms of democratic engagement. Participants in our project publish on the web, and we have moderated commenting features like other media outlets.

How do the tasks that you have developed to measure scientific literacy relate to the science-related sections of English Language Arts Standards and the National Education Standards?

We are most concerned with the tasks and indicators of scientific literacy we've developed related to the National Science Education Standards (NSES), but there are some relations to the nascent "Common Core State Standards" being developed by the National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers.
At the high school level, the English Language Arts portion of the Common Core State Standards includes a strong focus on reading informational texts, relating the information in those texts to content knowledge, identifying key ideas, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of multiple sources. All these are part of our notion of scientific literacy and the tasks we have developed to assess them. In addition, the writing portion of those standards emphasizes searching for and gathering information from multiple sources while assessing credibility and accuracy, which are also part of our assessment tasks. Our efforts and assessments intersect in a small way with the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics by involving basic use of numerical data to make inferences and justify conclusions.

What’s the next question you could see coming out of this work?

We may explore how these ideas could be implemented on a larger scale and in multiple locations outside the St. Louis region. We could further investigate how various kinds of participation in a distributed community of practice for educative science journalism could be encouraged, and what impacts they have on scientific literacy. In addition, we wonder what other forms of media—such as audio, video and other multimedia—afford as drivers of scientific literacy. Text-based journalism supported by photographs has been our primary focus to date, but there is a good deal of interest in multimedia and info-graphics.

Learn More: As they continue their research, project members are encouraged by the enthusiasm, continued engagement, and positive response they've received from participating teachers and students as well as the science education community. To learn more about this work and access the most recent issues of SciJourner, visit SciJourn's project profile page.

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