The idea of “scientific literacy” has long been held up as a common-sense goal of science education for the everyday citizen. At a surface level, it aims to provide an education in and about science that meets the needs of students who are not planning to pursue careers in science and technical fields. Among science education researchers, the origin of the phrase has been traced to the months following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in October 1957. It was then that the public and congress rallied around a titanic effort to remake science teaching for the good of the nation. It turns out, though, that this particular origin story just isn’t true. This talk traces the origin of “scientific literacy” further back, to the years just after the United States entered World War II, and examines the historical circumstances of its origin and use in American science education discourse from then until the present.
John Rudolph is a former high school science teacher and Distinguished Achievement Professor of Science Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and faculty affiliate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies. His books include Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education (2002), How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters (2019), which received the Choice Outstanding Book Award, and the forthcoming Why We Teach Science (and Why We Should) (2023). He has received awards from the History of Education Society, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Academy of Education.