Including Civic Engagement as a Component of Scientific Literacy

Martin H. Smith,
UC Davis
Steven M. Worker,
UC Davis
Andrea P. Ambrose,
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Development Services
Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty,
UC Cooperative Extension

Youth Scientific Literacy and Nonformal Education Programs

Science is a driving force of twenty-first-century society. As a consequence, related public policy issues (e.g., stem cell research, global warming, food safety and security, water quality and distribution) require informed choices made by a population that is scientifically literate (Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy 2007; Hobson 2008). However, scientific literacy among the adult population in the United States is considered low (Miller 2006), and data from standardized assessments of K–12 youth in recent years have shown poor achievement in science at all three grade levels tested—fourth, eighth, and twelfth (e.g., Fleischman et al. 2010; Gonzales et al. 2008; National Center for Education Statistics 2011).

While improvements in school-based science education represent one way to address the low levels of academic achievement in science among K–12 youth (Smith and Trexler 2006), a growing body of literature suggests that nonformal science programs can help attend to the issue, in part because they emphasize three cross-cutting characteristics of learning: people-, place-, and culture-centeredness (Bell et al. 2009; Fenichel and Schweingruber 2010; Kisiel 2006; Kress et al. 2008; National Research Council [NRC] 2009). Specifically, research findings have shown that out-of-school time (OST) science programming can increase youths’ science content knowledge and process skills; additionally, such programs can have positive effects on youths’ confidence and interest in science (National Research Council 2009; Stake and Mares 2005).

The 4-H Youth Development Program and Youth Scientific Literacy

The 4-H Youth Development Program is a national nonformal education organization for individuals aged 5–19. Programmatically, 4-H focuses on advancing positive youth development through hands-on educational opportunities that include civic engagement. Complementing its century-long history of offering science projects and programs ranging from geology and minerals to soil conservation, forestry to wildlife and fisheries, and computer science to animal and veterinary science (United States Department of Agriculture 2003), National 4-H established the 4-H Science Mission Mandate in an effort to expand and strengthen 4-H science education efforts through state-based 4-H programs (Schmiesing 2008). The California 4-H Program responded to the National 4-H Science Mission Mandate by commencing a statewide 4-H Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) Initiative (University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources 2008). This effort focuses on science programming, educator professional development, and evaluation in California 4-H SET, with an emphasis on scientific literacy as it relates to key statewide needs in the areas of natural resources, agriculture, and nutrition (Regents of the University of California 2009).

Defining Scientific Literacy to Advance 4-H Science Programming

To develop a framework, researchers and program staff began by asking the question: What does it mean to be scientifically literate within the context of California 4-H? However, despite a plethora of existing definitions of scientific literacy (Roberts 2007), there was no consensus about the meaning that allowed us to answer this question. This is a critical first step: a definition for the construct of scientific literacy is necessary to develop and advance science programming (Roberts 2007). Thus, our efforts to advance science programming in California 4-H began by framing a definition of scientific literacy (Smith et al. 2015).

A review of the literature revealed that most existing definitions of scientific literacy are not contextualized; rather, they focus on a broad array of science concepts and processes considered important to scientists (Falk et al. 2007; Laugksch 2000; Roberts 2007) but ignore “the social aspects of science and the needs of citizenship” (Lang et al. 2006, 179). In contrast, when viewing science learning as being contextualized, referred to as a “focus-on-situations” approach, programming places an emphasis on authentic science-related issues that individuals may encounter (Roberts 2007). Because of the contextualized nature of 4-H, we concentrated on developing a definition of scientific literacy that would accommodate relevant science programming across multiple contexts and include civic engagement, a hallmark of the 4-H experience (Brennan et al. 2007; Hairston 2004). By considering the construct of scientific literacy from this perspective, the definition developed for the California 4-H Program includes four anchor points: science content, scientific reasoning skills, interest and attitude, and contribution through applied participation. The four anchor points are described further as follows:

  • Anchor Point I: Science Content. Content knowledge is an important component of any definition of scientific literacy (NRC 2007; NRC 2009; Roberts 2007). A “focus-on-situations” approach places the emphasis on science-related content relevant to the citizens of California (e.g., water resource management, sustainable food systems, sustainable natural ecosystems, food safety and security, management of endemic and invasive pests and diseases, energy security and green technologies, and nutrition education and childhood obesity) that have been identified as germane to the state’s citizens (Regents of the University of California 2009).
  • Anchor Point II: Scientific Reasoning Skills. The advancement of scientific reasoning skills encourages learners to become more proficient in the practices of science by asking questions, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations, engaging in argumentation from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NRC, 2012). Referred to by Colvill and Pattie as the “‘building blocks’ of scientific literacy” (2002, 20), scientific reasoning skills provide learners with the necessary abilities to participate in scientific investigations, challenge conclusions, and question understanding.
  • Anchor Point III: Interest and Attitudes. Enhancing interest in and attitudes toward science can influence individuals in a variety of ways: it can stimulate their interest in science careers, help guide their responses to science-related situations in their everyday lives, and enhance their motivation to become involved in science-related issues in meaningful ways as citizens (Bybee and McCrae 2011). This is especially germane to audiences that have had limited educational opportunities in science, including women and ethnic minorities (Else-Quest et al. 2013; Scott and Martin 2012).
  • Anchor Point IV: Contribution through Applied Participation. The application of knowledge and skills in authentic contexts helps individuals gain a deeper understanding of scientific concepts and develop their abilities to think critically (Jones 2012). Furthermore, Anchor Point IV is particularly relevant to 4-H youth and the development of citizenship and life skills through civic engagement opportunities. Specifically, youth apply new knowledge and skills in ways that help address authentic community needs they have identified as important (e.g., Smith 2010).


Twenty-first-century society requires a scientifically literate citizenry (Hobson 2008; Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy 2007). Scientific literacy among youth populations is low (e.g., National Center for Education Statistics 2011), and nonformal science programs can help attend to this issue (e.g., Fenichel and Schweingruber 2010). However, to accomplish this, a definition of scientific literacy is needed (Roberts 2007). In California 4-H, we developed a definition of scientific literacy that includes the engagement of youth in science-related issues at the community level. Involving youth in service opportunities results in contributions to the community and advances the youths’ development (Brennan et al. 2007). Furthermore, by engaging youth fully in community-based change efforts they learn to function effectively in society (Nitzberg 2005).

Organizationally, California 4-H science programming is grounded in constructivist-based pedagogical strategies. Specifically, learning opportunities utilize guided inquiry-based instruction embedded in a five-step experiential learning cycle that places an emphasis on the authentic application of new knowledge and skills—the point where civic engagement intersects with 4-H science programming. To date, however, California 4-H has lacked a coherent framework to guide the key elements of science programming—the development of new curricula, the adaptation of existing curricula, educator professional development, and assessment efforts—in a manner that, by design, includes civic engagement.

The definition of scientific literacy that was developed will provide a programmatic structure for all elements of science programming in California 4-H; it will also afford a consistent, systematic strategy that will allow for the comparison of 4-H science programs within and across contexts (e.g., 4-H clubs, camps, afterschool programs), the evaluation of pedagogies, and assessments of targeted learner outcomes (Roberts 2007). Furthermore, the definition of scientific literacy in California 4-H intentionally includes the social aspects of science by engaging youth directly in relevant community issues. Such civic engagement is a key component of 4-H programming; in a larger context, however, it is essential to helping develop an informed public that is faced ever more frequently with decisions on science-related public policy issues.

About the Authors

Andrea Ambrose, who serves as the acting director of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Development Services, has thirty years of professional experience in the out-of-school education field including more than twenty years as an art and science museum educator, program developer, and fundraiser for organizations in Colorado, California, and West Virginia. She has taught standards-based science and art workshops for K–12 students, conducted professional development programs for K–12 educators, worked with and managed youth and adult volunteers, and secured significant funding from corporations, foundations, and public agencies for programmatic and capital projects. Her efforts to elevate the quality of out-of-school time programs for young people continue as she works to facilitate strong programmatic and funding partnerships on behalf of the University of California 4-H program and the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. She holds a B.A. in Studio Art and Art Education from Colorado State University and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Oregon.

Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty works as a county-based faculty member for the University of California Cooperative Extension and serves the geographic region of Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito Counties with youth development programming in nonformal science. 

Her scope of work is focused on developing multidisciplinary and integrated approaches to addressing California’s and the nation’s decline in youth science performance and achievement. This is accomplished by conducting applied research, education and programs with nonformal educators utilizing effective professional development models, curricula, and deliveries, to engage youth in self-directed learning and discovery.

Schmitt-McQuitty graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point in 1987 with a B.S. degree in Elementary Education with an emphasis in Outdoor Education, and obtained her M.S. degree in Outdoor Education in 1991 from Northern Illinois University.

The overarching goal of Martin H. Smith‘s work is to develop, evaluate, and publish effective, research-based science curricula and educator professional development models for school-based and nonformal education programs. Specifically, he focuses on educational materials and strategies that emphasize constructivism, reflective practice, and situated learning. His current work focuses on applied research related to youth scientific literacy in the areas of bio-security and water science education. He is also engaged in efforts to develop a theoretical basis for science education programming within California’s 4-H Youth Development Program, with an emphasis on defining scientific literacy, defining curriculum, and implementation fidelity. In his tenure at UC-Davis he has supervised twenty graduate fellows from science disciplines in education outreach work through the School of Education, has served on committees for graduate students (M.S. and Ph.D.), and has mentored over 450 undergraduate students involved in a wide variety of research, development, and extension efforts.

Steven Worker coordinates the California 4-H Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) Initiative, an effort to strengthen youth science education in the 4-H Youth Development Program. Worker is a Ph.D. candidate at the UC Davis School of Education and is engaged in a qualitative case study of the co-construction of design-based learning environments by youth and adult volunteers in out-of-school time.


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Author: seceij

Chuck Gahun is the content manager for the SECEIJ website and technical consultant for NCSCE

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