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Preparing Students for Citizenship: Fostering Critical Thinking and Problem-solving Skills through Quantitative Reasoning and Scientific Literacy

James D. Myers, Erin A. Campbell-Stone
Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Wyoming


The literacy triangle Through an integrated science course entitled Global Sustainability: Managing the Earth's Resources, this project prepares students for their roles as active and effective citizens in an industrialized democracy. This course, which is aimed at both STEM and non-STEM students in the first and second years of their academic careers, creates connections to the social sciences by presenting science in global context. In addition to integrating the natural sciences, i.e. biological, physical and Earth, it focuses on improving student critical thinking and problem-solving skills. To reduce or eliminate the barriers to student success posed by inadequate literacy skills, training in the literacies necessary to master scientific content is an integral and explicit component of the course. Armed with improved quantitative reasoning and scientific understanding, students will be better prepared to apply their critical thinking abilities and problem solving skills to the multifaceted and complex issues of global sustainability, a topic critical to all inhabitants of the planet.

Project Goals

The primary goal of this project is to prepare students for citizenship by improving their critical thinking abilities and problem-solving skills while expanding their capacity to reason quantitatively at a variety of cognitive levels and in a range of real world situations.

Specific Project Objectives:

  1. Implement an integrated, interdisciplinary sustainability course.
  2. Design, develop and construct learning materials to support meaningful learning.
  3. Develop a catalog of sustainability case studies to create a meaningful lab experience.
  4. Disseminate our learning objects for use by other science instructors.
  5. Develop, test and distribute assessment tools for measuring scientific and quantitative literacy.

Project Design/Elements

Course Rationale

The likelihood of students achieving deep and meaningful scientific understanding, and applying it effectively to societal problems, is grounded on three sound foundations: mastery of literacy skills, contextualized scientific content knowledge and social relevancy. Like any other profession, science has a set of literacies that must be mastered before scientific problems can be addressed in an effective and successful manner.

The three literacy classes that students must master to achieve scientific understanding and their relation to each other is illustrated by the literacy triangle (see attached file). At the base of the triangle are the fundamental literacies that allow individuals to interpret and manipulate facts, data and observations, i.e. read a table or interpret a graph; 2) make qualitative assessments; and 3) perform simple quantitative calculations. These tools are a subset of the larger quantitative reasoning skills (Steen, 2001) and important in the physical and social sciences as well as the real world. The technical literacies are those skills/abilities necessary to master the content of a particular scientific discipline. When combined with scientific content, the literacies lead to scientific understanding. Successful application of scientific understanding to societal issues requires citizenship literacies. They permit an individual to use their scientific understanding to evaluate the impact of human activities from a range of perspectives (economic, social, cultural, etc.).

A sound factual knowledge basis is also important for understanding a scientific discipline (NRC, 2000). However to be useful, this knowledge must be organized or contextualize so relevant information can be retrieve quickly and applied effectively. This knowledge organization comes only with a deep subject understanding. The broad-brush, fast science coverage so common to introductory courses does not build this type of knowledge. Thus, lasting sciencific comprehension comes down to content depth vs. breadth. To help students build the type of factual knowledge a subject expert has access to, the student must be given sufficient time to explore a subject. Thus, material must be omitted from the course to produce long-term retention and use. Scientific content must be strained through a simple sieve. "Is a citizen likely to need to know this information?" Disciplinary breadth is sacrificed for meaningful depth.

Responsible citizenship is not an abstract concept. It is an active involvement in the issues and problems a democratic society routinely faces. Because many of these issues are scientific in nature, students must be scientifically literate to address them . Thus, introductory science courses should place scientific content in social contexts highly relevant to active citizen participation. Rather than providing fabricated contexts, students must encounter science in the economic, political, cultural and social settings they may encounter in the media. Active global citizenship requires students to be aware of, and capable of understanding other, situations in both their scientific complexity and their social dimensions.

Course Template

Supported by a FIPSE grant at the University of Wyoming, Myers and Campbell-Stone (Geology & Geophysics) in collaboration with Garth Massey (International Studies) used these three fundamental foundations to develop a new course paradigm: Literacies and Scientific Content in Social Context (L(SC)2). L(SC)2 redefines and expands the concept of the interdisciplinary course. It addresses scientific literacy while promoting mastery of fundamental quantitative and qualitative skills, as well habits of mind necessary for active civic engagement. Literacy (skills) training provides the quantitative and qualitative tools necessary to function in a numbers-oriented, technological society. Scientific content illustrates the limitations imposed by the natural world on what can be accomplished through science, technology and engineering. Science in real-world social context also explicitly reveals draws connections to students' everyday lives. At the same time, experience in addressing realistic, real-life problems instills a sense of social and political efficacy and responsibility.

Case Studies

Case studies set in local, regional, national or international situations teach citizenship literacies while demonstrating the social relevance of science. By helping students acquire fundamental, technical and citizenship literacies in a scientific and social framework that engages them in discussions, role playing, negotiations and the formulation of alternative strategies, the L(SC)2 paradigm encourages active citizenship extending well beyond students' academic careers.

Each case study consists of two parts focused on different aspects of a sustainability problem. In most cases, the first part of a case study examines the geologic and scientific components of the issue. Building on this new scientific understanding, the second part normally examines a social or economic component of the problem. In both parts, students are assigned a role that a professional working for different organizations might carry out as part of his/her job. In this manner, students get multiple perspectives on different issues and explore some of the complexities and uncertainties surrounding nearly all sustainability issues. During the first year of this project, we have added four case studies to our sustainability catalog:

  • Water in Bangladesh: Tube Wells and Arsenic Case study collage
    • Understanding Groundwater
    • Assessing Water Quality
  • Energy: Coal, China & Climate Change
    • Coal Exploration and Mining
    • The Price of Electricity Generation
  • Gold: Satisfying a Global Demand
    • Prospecting for Gold
    • Gold and the Environment
  • Energy: Petroleum – A Critical Resource
    • Using Geology to Find Oil
    • Saudi Arabia, OPEC & Global Oil: Energy Dependence

The two components of each case study heavily involve quantitiative reasoning. To evaluate the consequences of different courses of action, a variety of quantitative data are necessary as well as the ability to read graphs and carry out simple quantitative calculations and qualitative evaluations.

Evaluation and Assessment Strategies

Evaluation and assessment will be conducted on the: 1) digital content produced; and 2) learning materials developed. The latter includes, but is not restricted to: a) literacy tools; b) case studies; c) lecture activities; as well as d) the Global Sustainability course. We will also evaluate the impact of these teaching methods and activities on student learning. Finally, we will continually evaluate the effectiveness and progress of the entire Global Sustainability project throughout its lifetime.

Products, Key Findings, Publications

Myers, J.D., and G. Massey, 2008, Earth Resources: What's Sociology Got to Do with It?: in Hartman, H. (ed.), Integrating the Sciences and Society: Challenges, Practices, and Potentials, Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, vol. 16, pp. 76-98.

Campbell-Stone, E.A., and J.D. Myers, 2008, Teaching Sustainability from a Scientific Standpoint at the Introductory Level: Eos Trans. AGU, 89(53), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract ED31A-0584.

Myers, J.D., E.A. Campbell-Stone and G. Massey, 2008, Redesigning Introductory Science Courses to Teach Sustainability: Introducing the L(SC)2 Paradigm: Eos Trans. AGU, 89(53), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract ED21A-0609.

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