Assessing preservice elementary teachers’ conceptual understanding of scientific literacy*

June, 2021

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education Volume 102

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The objective of this study was to assess preservice elementary teachers’ conceptual understanding of scientific literacy.
Additionally, the researchers of the current study aim to add to the limited research on preservice elementary teachers’ scientific literacy and its dimensions.
The research questions are as follows:
1. To what extent do preservice elementary teachers conceptually understand scientific literacy as per the NRC’S (1996) definition of scientific literacy?
2. To what extent do preservice elementary teachers conceptually understand the Nature of Science (NOS) as proposed by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)?
3. To what extent do preservice elementary teachers conceptually understand science, technology, and society (STS) as proposed by the NGSS?

Methodology and methods

Research design
In this study, the researchers used a qualitative interview design with a semi-structured interview (Turner, 2010).
The researchers chose this format to allow for more flexibility in responding to the flow of answers the participants provided and in gathering data relevant to the study.
Based on the purpose and questions of the current study, the definition of scientific literacy (as per the NRC’s 1996 definition), the NOS matrix, and the influence of engineering, technology, and science on society and the natural world (IETSSN) matrix were divided into components to compare the themes emerging from the data.
The qualitative results were quantified as percentage responses so that they can be practically compared to the corresponding components per scientific literacy, NOS, and STS (Fraenkel et al., 2012; Miles et al., 2014).
As such, the researchers developed an interview protocol to collect data in a face-to-face manner.
The interview protocol consisted of three main open-ended questions that corresponded to each of the three research questions.
The researchers worked to establish the instrument’s validity.
The interview protocol was reviewed, pilot-tested, and finally used with the participants.

The participants of the present study consisted of a total of 20 preservice elementary teachers (2 men and 18 women) registered in an advanced science methods course at a midsize university in the United States.
The participants were enrolled in an educational program that prepared them to teach children in grades 1 through 6 in public and private schools.
The participants’ ages ranged from 20 to 25 years, and all had completed their science and science education course requirements.
At the end of the advanced science methods course, the participants were asked to voluntarily participate in the study.

Results and discussion
The results of this study showed that only 20% of the participants addressed four out of the six components of scientific literacy.
The remaining participants showed a narrower conceptual understanding of scientific literacy, focusing primarily on comprehending scientific materials from different resources.
Bacanak and Gokdere (2009), who reported low levels of scientific literacy among the participants in their study, highlighted a significant concern: teachers who have low scientific literacy levels cannot be expected to produce scientifically literate students or to effectively apply curriculum reform.
The findings of the present study further support this concern by revealing that more than half of the participants viewed scientific literacy as having vast content knowledge in science, which they thought was achieved through relying exclusively on reading different scientific materials.
However, both Chin (2005) and Cavas et al. (2013) shared different results.
Using the TBSL, Chin’s (2005) investigation found that first-year preservice teachers had satisfactory levels of scientific literacy.
In addition, Cavas et al. (2013) found that the preservice elementary teachers in their investigation had satisfactory scientific literacy levels on the TBSL regardless of year in university.
Although these studies indicated that participants had satisfactory levels, participants may still have held misconceptions or lacked key concepts about scientific literacy.
Therefore, it is possible that the results of the present study were influenced by the lack of argumentation discourse in science among the participants.
Cetin et al. (2014) emphasized that a scientifically literate individual actively participates in decision-making regarding scientific and socio-scientific issues, which require knowledge of argumentation.
Thus, teacher education programs need to specifically train future teachers in quality argumentation skills because teachers are responsible for cultivating scientific literacy among students.
Regarding the NOS, most of the reviewed literature that addresses the NOS in the context of scientific literacy with preservice elementary teachers has included participants’ concerns about their performance or scores when measuring their knowledge and understanding of the NOS.
Karamustafaoglu et al. (2013) attempted to describe the participants’ low scores on their scientific literacy tests by stating that the participants had incorrectly learned concepts related to the NOS.
Likewise, Chin (2005) stressed that literacy in the NOS dimension was rated lowest among the preservice elementary teachers, thus strongly suggesting that teacher education programs should put more effort into improving the domains of the NOS.
These results could possibly be attributed to the absence of explicit NOS instruction in teacher education programs.
The findings of the present study corroborate this idea.
Half of the participants addressed only one out of eight components of the NOS matrix: component 4 “scientific models, laws, mechanisms, and theories explain natural phenomena.”
Another notable issue pertaining to participants’ responses was the abundance of scientific terminology usually associated when addressing the NOS (e.g., empirical evidence, scientific knowledge, scientific method, and scientific models).
With respect to STS, the results of this study indicate that the participants were aware of the IETSSN matrix components and the influence that science and technology have on society.
Most participants were aware of all IETSSN matrix components, except for component 1: “Every human-made product is designed by applying some knowledge of the natural world and is built by using natural materials.”
These results reflect Chin’s (2005) findings, which reported adequate comprehension of STS among the preservice teachers.
A possible explanation could be related to the continuous spread of technology and social media networking sites around the world among younger generations (Lee et al., 2017);
this was seen when the participants in this study commonly referred to the technology that they use in everyday life, such as iPads, laptops, and smartphones.
Although several sources have classified the new generation of preservice teachers as digital natives (Lei, 2009; Prensky, 2001), mere skills and knowledge are not enough to adequately and successfully integrate STS issues into their future classrooms (Mouza et al., 2014).
Consequently, it is important to allow preservice elementary teachers the opportunity to critically reflect on their beliefs and knowledge regarding STS in hopes of implementing such knowledge in their future classrooms, thus signaling the need for explicit STS courses in teacher education programs (Amirshokoohi, 2010).
Overall, teacher education programs are key in helping preservice teachers acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to integrate STS concepts into their classroom curricula.
Achieving scientific literacy is one of the major goals of science education worldwide.
As future teachers, preservice elementary teachers instill the fundamental aspects of scientific literacy that students will depend on in their further education and roles in society.
This study has provided additional evidence about the essential role teacher education programs play in shaping preservice elementary teachers’ scientific literacy.
Although it is important to ensure preservice elementary teachers’ conceptual aspects of scientific literacy are adequate before they begin their professional careers, this does not automatically result in the translation of these aspects into classroom practice.
Therefore, more research is needed to determine preservice teachers’ attitudes toward scientific literacy and to investigate effective ways to promote positive attitudes toward scientific literacy.
Also, future research is needed to evaluate preservice teachers’ abilities to develop methods, lesson plans, and activities to effectively transfer the aspect of scientific literacy into the classroom.

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Updated: Oct. 21, 2021