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Science literacy refers to having a basic understanding of science and includes understanding of important scientific facts, concepts, principles and the application of scientific knowledge to daily life situations. It incorporates the ability to use scientific inquiry and understand society interactions. In his opinion Goldston (2005) argues that the concept of scientific literacy is a breakthrough in a simple composite of knowledge dimension to the knowledge and skills processes, methods and emotional attitudes, whose purpose is to prepare people to lead personally fulfilling and responsible lives.
The main objective of science education is to enable students to develop understanding and habits of mind that are sufficient to make them think for themselves and face life competently (AAAS, 1993). Studies have shown that scientific habits of mind empower people to deal sensibly with problems that involve evidence, quantitative considerations, logical arguments and uncertainty (Goldston, 2005). AAAS (1993) views science as a means of empowering students to participate thoughtfully with fellow citizens in building and protecting a society that is open, decent and vital. This is in line with America's future vision to create a truly just society, sustain its economic vitality and remain secure in a world torn by hostilities. Furthermore, the future of America depends more on the character and quality of education that the nation provides for all its children (AAAS, 1993). This research looks into science literacy integration in U.S. elementary curriculum and discuses the way forward for proactive approach to science literacy in U.S elementary curriculum, for grade 1- 6 students.
Statement of Purpose
The decreasing university enrollments in science courses, poor science performance across all U.S. education levels and lack of science integration in elementary curriculum have resulted to influx of science oriented professionals from other countries in U.S. This calls for a proactive approach to science literacy in elementary curriculum.
Science Literacy: A U.S. Dilemma
Goldston (2005) observes that the current United States education requirements for ''No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) Act primarily focuses on language, arts and mathematics, marginalizing science instruction. Statistics indicate that on international scale, the performance of Science for U.S. students is lower than that of students from other nations. According to Lemke et al (2000), the National Center for Education assessment indicates that science performance for 15-year old U.S. students is lower than that of students from other developed countries, with U.S. students scoring an average of 502, below Australia; 527, Finland; 554, Japan; 539, Canada; 529 and New Zealand; 532. Further research conducted in 1987 revealed that only 7percent of American-13 year old students could apply elementary scientific principles in problem solving, far below 33% of students from Korea and 31% from British Columbia. In addition, the findings of a large international study testing science performance for 13 year old students from 20 countries released in 1992 indicated that American students ranked close to the bottom when scores of top 10percent of students tested were compared (National Excellence, 1993). Drawing from research and studies that have been performed on U.S. science performance, international assessments have proved relatively poor standing of all American students in science, with tests showing that American top performing students are undistinguished at best and poor at worst when compared with top students in other countries. The poor science performance can be attributed to lack of interest in science among students, resulting from poor integration of science literacy to U.S. curriculum that ignores the importance of science literacy at early ages of children's development in elementary school, grade 1- 6.
University statistics reveal that since 1990, U.S. has experienced a rapid inflow of science students and postdoctoral scholars from other countries despite the fact that the country gives preference to domestic students. Research from National Science Foundation (2004) shows that between 1986 and 2001, foreign students from China, Taiwan, India and South Korea earned more than half of the 148,000 U.S. science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded. Additionally, the U.S. university enrollment statistics reveal a higher enrollment for foreign students pursuing science courses and decline in domestic students, with foreign science postdoctoral scholars accounting for 70% as opposed 50% domestic science scholars in 2001 (NSF, 2004). Based on these studies, it is clear that science remains a great challenge across all education levels in U.S. The poor science performance and lack of interest in science related courses are due to lack of science literacy foundation in elementary school. Integration of science literacy in elementary curriculum lays a strong science foundation for students from all walks of life, whereby students learn to use scientific skills in problem solving and embrace science as a way of life.
Science Literacy in Elementary Curriculum: A proactive Approach
The poor science performance across all levels of education in U.S. requires a proactive approach in integration of science literacy to education curriculum at an early age in order to motivate students to embrace science in early childhood education. Research has shown that Science responds to children's needs to learn about the world around them. Howes (2008) points out that children who are introduced to science literacy in elementary schools show a decline in disruptive behavior as they become more engaged in explorations, observations and discussions. This experience contributes positively to improved cooperation and communication, which are necessary for successful learning. Furthermore, children's daily experience is the foundation for science, with hands on- activities and open-ended science activities that involve children at a wide range of developmental levels within each classroom. Conezio & French (2002) point out that the science approach of trial and error in learning welcomes error and interprets it as valuable information but not a failure. This results to increased achievement as children are free to focus on learning rather than avoiding mistakes.
Norris and Philips (2003) argue that use of literacy strategies in science integration for elementary school students helps them to develop positive attitudes towards learning science, while drawing on real world evidence to generate explanations, arguments and questions that support collaborative learning approaches. Collaborative approaches towards learning not only contribute to improved student's performance, but they also contribute towards development of children's social skills, making them resourceful members of the society. Conezio & French (2002) observe that literacy in science has a deeper meaning than development of familiarity with scientific vocabulary and writing genres. It is about use of language in inquiry and the construction of meaning, such that if appropriately implemented at an early age, science based curriculum is rich in language based interactions. Cronsberry (2004) further supports literacy in elementary science curriculum and observes that vocabulary growth is supported by children's prior knowledge and experience of everyday world, coupled with observations and hands on activities. Based on this observation, it follows that integration of science in elementary curriculum should incorporate simple daily experiences of children that bring out science interpretations in order to make science interesting to them.
According to Wallance & Hand (2007), students using science writing score higher on high order conceptual questions of scientific knowledge in addition to their improved performance in language arts and science. This is in agreement with Rivard and Straw (2000) who point out that structured writing activities in science lessons combined with group discussions lead to improved student retention of science knowledge. This calls for necessity to integrate science literacy in elementary curriculum in order to start developing children's high order thinking skills necessary for growth in science education.
Integration of science literacy in elementary curriculum for grade 1- 6 through use of science note books has proved effective in places where it has been employed. Science notebooks use writing and discussion to support the development of conceptual understanding by scaffolding instruction that supports students in using evidence to form explanations and writing as a reflective tool (Klentschy, 2008). Use of science notebooks focuses on questions, prediction, planning, organizing and recording data, development of explanations, making conclusions through discussions and reflection on new thoughts and questions. Klentschy (2008) observes that the components integrated use of note books make student thinking explicit and provide a structure to support students in creating meaning from inquiry based science learning experiences. This method enables students to use their observations to support their reasoning as they write about what they have learned from the investigation instead of what they did during the investigation (Klentschy & Thompson, 2008). Implementation of science literacy in elementary curriculum by use of notebook enables students to develop mental abilities ideal for practical scientific and social applications to solve problems in real life situations and to become part of society's dynamic social and economic growth.
Research has revealed that hands on-activities during science lessons and science demonstrations empower students to become comfortable in large-group conversations (Conezio & French, 2002). When demonstrations and discussions take place in a large group setting, all children involved share the same experience and knowledge base and this creates a community of learners who can support one another's explorations, share new ideas on a topic, and challenge new theories generated. This is a necessary approach in building a cohesive society that supports dynamic growth as children develop cognitive skills and competence required to face the world ahead. Furthermore, Conezio & French (2002) reveal that science connects easily to other areas of elementary curriculum such as center-based play, mathematics, artistic expression and social studies. Hence with an integrated curriculum, related activities and concepts are explored in different subjects. This offers children an opportunity to learn using different senses and skills.
In conclusion, drawing from statistical and theoretical frameworks, this paper shows how American science curriculum and science related jobs have continued to face challenges due to student's lack of interest in science, originating from poor implementation of science curriculum and inability of education system to integrate science literacy in elementary curriculum at early stages of children's growth. Shortage of graduate students pursuing science related professions forces many large companies to fill science and research related jobs with people educated outside United States. Numerous studies carried out in different America organizations have revealed that U.S. is faced with shortage of professionals in science. This has been attributed to poor preparation and lack of interest, originating from American elementary schools. This shortage is anticipated to increase for as long as drastic changes are not taken in the way students are trained in their early ages. This calls for a proactive approach to integration of science curriculum in all American elementary schools by using interactive and friendly methods that empower students to embrace science as a natural way of life.