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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2016

What I've Been Reading

Science Media Education: Opportunities for Libraries?

Michael Fosmire
Head, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Technology Division
Purdue University Libraries
West Lafayette, Indiana

As I've been listening to conversations among STEM librarians, I've heard a fair amount of ambivalence about the new Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education (ACRL 2015) and how it applies to science and engineering information sources. There is often a feeling that the 'richer, more complex' concepts in the Framework may have less relevance to science and engineering faculty, particularly with the lack of concrete learning outcomes that can be 'checked off' to show student achievement. The Framework instructs that "each library and its partners on campus will need to deploy these frames to best fit their own situations, including designing learning outcomes," filling some librarians with dread as they feel STEM educators are less tolerant of 'touchy feely' outcomes, i.e., those that are not precisely worded and exhaustively detailed. The lack of 'backup' from the Framework of such explicitly worded outcomes can lead STEM librarians to feel abandoned in their attempts to convince STEM faculty of the need to incorporate information literacy into their curricula.

However, one can also choose to embrace the opportunities provided by the 'richer, more complex' concepts offered by the Framework. In our increasingly complex and messy information environment, the information literacy competency standards (ACRL 2000) were showing their age. Ironically, in an environment of information surplus, product-related outcomes, such as locating a certain number of sources, are much less important than process-related outcomes. The Framework foregrounds process at its core. This is becoming increasingly aligned with emerging STEM outcomes, which see rote memorization of facts as decreasing in importance, and an understanding of how scientific knowledge is created and evaluated as more important (NRC 2012). As STEM disciplines become more specialized, while simultaneously embracing the need for making connections across disciplines, solid information literacy skills, abilities, and habits become paramount to staying current and productive. At my own institution, I hear all the time from science and engineering faculty that information literacy is important for their is up to us, then to translate that perceived need into action.

Perhaps this has been a long preamble into 'What I've been Reading,' for this column, which comes from a special issue of Cultural Studies of Science Education on "2020 Vision: Envisioning a New Generation of Learning Research." Two articles from that issue address scientific media education (SME) (Reid and Norris 2016; Storksdieck 2016). The authors come from communications, science literacy, and science education backgrounds, and interestingly, do not reference the library literature at all. What I found most interesting about these articles is how parallel the concepts are to those from information literacy (see, for example, Mackey and Jacobson 2011, on metaliteracy), while standing largely outside of that literature. Both articles stake out a research agenda based on the lack of studies about how students learn from media, the role of media in forming opinions, and the ability for students to identify, locate, evaluate, and use information to increase their understanding of scientific developments. I argue that, rather than being put off by the new language of the Framework, one can find many opportunities to work with science educators to integrate information literacy concepts within the context of those disciplines. If the science education community acknowledges a lack of research on areas central to instruction librarians, an entire area of collaboration opens, as well as an opportunity for us to investigate the science education body of literature for additional insights and vocabulary to understand how the science communication and science media community thinks and talks.

Reid and Norris define scientific media literacy as "the ability to draw on a knowledge of the media and science, in order to choose, understand, evaluate, and respond to representations of science across diverse media genres." This parallels the ALA definition of Information literacy as a set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information" (ALA 1989).

Reid and Norris argue that Science Media Education (SME) is an underappreciated, indeed essential, content area for science education. They note that mass media eventually becomes the main source of STEM information for non-scientists, and, indeed, the main source of STEM information outside their discipline for scientists as well, so an ability to navigate science media effectively is critical for making informed decisions and developing reasoned perspectives on scientific and technical advancements. The authors comment that the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012) states that "students should be able to 'engage in a critical reading of primary scientific literature...or of media reports of science and discuss the validity and reliability of the data, hypotheses, and conclusions.'(P. 77)." However, they decry the lack of research on SME in K-12, and "the research picture relating to current uses of science media in higher education is even bleaker." They state that the research mainly consists of a few anecdotal case studies, in many of which "SME is not considered a content goal in its own media are being used to achieve other content objectives," but, that the research does indicate that students have challenges interpreting science discussed in the media, misunderstand evidence presented and overestimate the certainty of scientific claims, and are unable to differentiate between fact and fiction in those sources. They find scientists also are generally unaware of the difference between journalistic and scholarly norms for communication, in particular, the need for engaging audiences and the expectation for providing 'balanced' coverage, and reference a study in which 'only a few scientists recognized that the primary purpose of science movies is not to inform, but rather to entertain.'

The authors suggest a framework for SME based on the National Telemedia Council's definition of media literacy as "the ability to choose, to understand--within the context of content, form/style, impact, industry and production--to question, to evaluate, to create, and/or produce, and to respond thoughtfully to media we consume" (National Telemedia Council 1992, p. 12). They posit three content areas for SME, "1) knowledge about the context of media; 2) abilities to use this context critically to choose, understand, evaluate, and respond to media; and 3) the ability to use this context to create/produce media." Without an understanding of the context of how media is produced and the driving motivation behind production of different forms of media (for example, news reports or movies), an ability to critically evaluate the content is compromised. This is especially true for scientific information found online, since the barriers for online dissemination of information are low.

Students need to develop the abilities to 'choose between media that are more likely to be useful for scientific information...and those more likely to be useful for entertainment and enjoyment." That students "acquire skills to identify, understand, and evaluate sources of scientific information in both factual and fictional media" [emphasis authors], to 'find additional, reputable information about scientific topic discussed in the media,' and 'combine all of the above an effort to foster people's capacities to use and respond to those media representations of science." Reid and Norris then discuss barriers to implementing SME, including too much emphasis on rote learning, but also the lack of expertise of teachers to incorporate SME into the classroom and lack of teaching resources concerning SME topics. They also note that "it would therefore be useful for educational researchers to examine potential costs involved in making media resources available for formal and informal science education.'...Hmm, if only there was an occupation devoted to making resources available to learners and teaching them how to navigate the scientific information landscape.

As previously mentioned, the core outcomes of Reid and Norris' model for SME align with our information literacy core outcomes and the Framework. For example, the knowledge of the context of media aligns with Information Creation as a Process; identifying sources relates to Searching as Strategic Exploration; understanding sources, to Research as Inquiry and Information has Value; evaluating sources, to Authority is Constructed and Contextual; and using and responding, to Scholarship as Conversation. The concepts as articulated in the Framework provide more depth and nuance than in the articles; perhaps they could provide a core set of values and ideas to build SME around, or at least as a basis to start conversations between the science and library communities.

Storksdienst, at first glance, embraces the library language of information literacy, and even critical information literacy, around which to build science media education. He takes issue with the '20th century' formulation of Reid and Norris, to "offer instead that the broader concept of Information Literacy might be more easily achieved within the current strong movement to conceptualize STEM education via science and engineering practices and within the broad goals of strengthening learners' 21st century skills," but, unfortunately, without referencing the library literature/definition of information literacy. Storksdienst acknowledges the impact of entertainment and edutainment on public understanding of science, stressing that understanding and critically evaluating information contained in various media sources is important, and "while it has always been relevant, the main question today for a science-interested person is not as much about how to search and find information, but how to select and choose the appropriate source." Storksdienst's strongest objection to Reid and Norris' suggestion for SME curriculum is the lack of a foundation, namely in order for subject matter to be considered core, 'systematic research on how to teach it effectively is needed to guide pedagogy; curricular and instructional materials need to be developed and tested for effectiveness at a large scale; and a sufficient number of teachers...need to be prepared to address it properly." He rather puts forward the proposition that one could "infuse or integrate aspects of scientific media education as information literacy into the existing large-scale reform effort in science education that is currently underway," in particular in the Next Generation Science Standards (NRC 2012), which lay out eight performance expectations, almost all of which include information literacy skills, including explicitly the eighth expectation of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

  1. Asking questions and defining problems
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Table I: Next Generation Science Standards Science and Engineering Practices (NRC 2012, Appendix F).

Storksdienst goes on to summarize the change in what an expert is in the sciences, as 'scholarship is increasingly more about informed and critical judgment about information and its sources than about knowing the facts. It is that activity that I call critical information literacy....In fact, one could argue that information literacy is the application of critical thinking to information and its sources, creating in people a habit of asking questions about the information they receive.'

In Storksdienst's research agenda, 'the field is currently missing a systematic understanding of the ways in which critical science information literacy can be fostered and assessed across a person's lifetime....If the goal is to help the public become more informed and better at making critical judgments about the nature of scientific evidence and the varied practices of science, as a field we need a multipronged strategy; one that utilizes the changing media landscape as a key platform for questioning everyday practices, rather than simply as a pedagogic device. To further this goal I would recommend the creation of a comprehensive review and summary of existing understandings about science information literacy and the development of a science information literacy agenda. We can make little progress towards improved public information literacy in the absence of a better and more comprehensive research base on which to build 21st century educational practice. "

It appears the door has been opened, the gauntlet thrown down, for STEM librarians to walk through/pick up to add their voices to the scholarly conversation about science media education. As Storksdienst states, 'the institutional and conceptual foundations for infusing critical information literacy into science learning are beginning to be laid. Interestingly, the only major educational sector that lags behind in these efforts appears to be higher education.' Storksdienst even uses the term information literacy to describe expectations for students. One could not ask for a better invitation to go up to your nearest science educator and say 'yeah, information literacy? We might know a little bit about that.' Is that a ground floor we can get in on?

I know that STEM librarians have compiled a vast body of research knowledge and instructional resources, which can help meet the needs articulated in the two papers above, or at least enhance the conversation. Written in the language of STEM educators, these articles can provide a bridge between librarians and science educators to find common ground on how science information literacy can be integrated into science curricula. In my own experience working with both science and engineering faculty, having the ABET 'lifelong learning' requirement was always a conversation starter in engineering, as lifelong learners need to be able to identify learning needs, develop a plan for acquiring skills, knowledge, abilities to meet that need, and carry it out...and most of that learning occurs through self-directed, independent action (Fosmire and Radcliffe 2014). But, in the sciences, the concept of lifelong learning hasn't been a part of the discipline. It was often assumed that 'knowing science' was enough, and students would just be able to figure out how to navigate the literature after their formal education was finished. In the 20 years that I've been a librarian, as the information landscape has become more complex, I have increasingly heard from science educators how important an ability to effectively navigate the literature is, and some of them have been very willing to adopt the language of information literacy. However, these articles provide a look at how some of our core information literacy concepts are articulated in the SME literature, so that, particularly for science educators who are resistant to library-centric information literacy concepts, their language can be harnessed to have conversations on their turf, and we can address specific skills and abilities and inclinations they believe are important for their students to master.

From a research perspective, these articles came out of an NSF-sponsored workshop addressing new areas of science education research, so the bold librarian can even look for funding to tackle Science Media Education, or Information Literacy in Science, through curriculum development or assessment grants, either as leaders or partners with kindred faculty at your institution. Science educators specializing in science communication or research interests linked to Next Generation Science Standards, or just those with an open mind and creative ideas, could be perfect partners to meld the expertise of scientists and informationists to advance the understanding of how science information skills can be developed in our students, both science and non-science majors. The door is open, will we as STEM librarians walk through?


American Library Association. 1989. Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Final Report. Chicago: American Library Association. Available from:

Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). 2000. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago: ACRL, ALA.

Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). 2015. Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. Chicago: ACRL, ALA.

Fosmire, M. & Radcliffe, D. 2014. Integrating Information into the Engineering Design Process. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.

Mackey, T. & Jacobson, T. 2011. Reframing information Literacy as a metaliteracy. College & Research Libraries 72(1): 62-78. doi:10.5860/crl-76r1

National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K-12 Science Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/13165

National Telemedia Council. 1992. Media Literacy. Telemedium: The Newsletter of the National Telemedia Council, 38: 12.

Reid, G. & Norris, S. 2016. Scientific media education in the classroom and beyond: a research agenda for the next decade. Cultural Studies of Science Education 11: 147-166. doi:10.1007/s11422-015-9709-1

Storksdienst, M. 2016. Critical information literacy as core skill for lifelong STEM learning in the 21st century: reflections on the desirability and feasibility for widespread science media education. Cultural Studies of Science Education 11: 167-182. 11: 167. doi:10.1007/s11422-015-9714-4

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