Science Journalism as a Support for Developing Students’ Science Literacy

By Melissa Ballard - June 2015


Polman, J. L., Newman, A., Saul, E. W., & Farrar, C. (2014). Adapting practices of science journalism to foster science literacy. Science Education, 98(5), 766–791.


Science educators can use results reported in this paper to

  • Design science journalism activities and programs.
  • Expand definitions of scientific literacy.
  • Deepen understanding of how programs can be designed to relate to students’ everyday lives and interests.

What Is The Issue?

How can educators support students’ science literacy?

The authors describe two definitions of science literacy. The first, most prominent, definition focuses on knowledge within science: Students practice science firsthand and model professional scientific practices such as conducting experiments, constructing arguments from evidence, and analyzing data. A second definition focuses on preparing students to make decisions about STEM-related situations in their everyday lives.

The authors argue that, in order to make informed decisions using multiple, and sometimes competing, sources of scientific information, youth must learn to recognize when science is relevant to their needs and to access scientific expertise or knowledge to further their goals.

The authors believe that science journalism is an effective educational approach to fostering this second kind of science literacy.

What Was The Study?

Polman, Newman, Saul, and Farrar have worked for six years on a project called Science Literacy through Science Journalism or SciJourn. This science journalism program for teens seeks to develop students’ fluency in the application and use of science in personal life. This paper summarizes and reflects on the authors’ previous research with SciJourn, identifying the key elements of their vision of teaching science literacy through science journalism.

This brief focuses on five criteria the authors used to evaluate student-written science news articles. Adapted from the professional practices of science journalists, the criteria demonstrate the specific ways in which science journalism supports the authors’ vision of science literacy for middle and high school students.

The authors used data collected during the second iteration of the SciJourn program in 2009–2011. These include observations of classrooms and professional development sessions, student and teacher interviews, and students’ science news stories published in SciJourner, a professionally edited magazine managed by the project. 


This research is heavily informed by a sociocultural theory of learning and practice. The authors view science journalism as a community of professionals who share particular skills, knowledge, and practices. If they are made explicit, these rules can be translated to educational contexts.

What Were The Findings?

The authors find science journalism supports students’ science literacy (informed use of science in everyday lives) through the following ways:

  1. Providing personal connections. Expert journalists often use personal angles to help readers relate to the story and make it more engaging. SciJourn facilitators and its editor found that having students first draft a story and then construct a “lead” based on their personal connection to the content was most effective. The researchers also found that, when students were given the freedom to select story topics, they engaged more strongly with the science.
  2. Developing research skills. Many students (and adults) used Wikipedia and a general browser search as primary sources of information. SciJourn facilitators take the approach that students should be skeptical of all websites and learn to determine credibility for specific purposes. Polman and colleagues recommend teaching that Wikipedia can be used to identify scientific terminology that can help refine further search results.
  3. Supporting the use of multiple credible, attributed sources. The journalistic convention of attributing sources is notably absent from texts that students often read—school textbooks, press releases, and many easily accessible or popular websites. Students therefore lack understanding of the importance of using multiple credible sources. The SciJourn researchers emphasize the importance of explicitly discussing scientific credentials, peer review, and the value of professionals’ experiential knowledge.
  4. Providing context for science content. Information in science news stories must be contextualized in its scientific background. Science journalism reflects the process of science research, including characteristics such as disagreement and consensus. Furthermore, they contextualize information in terms of risk, scale, and cost. In writing science news articles, students are provided an authentic context for learning science practices and content.
  5. Opportunities to synthesize information. A primary function of science journalism is helping readers make sense of the content; sense-making is also a real-life skill required of any citizen. Acknowledging the difficulty of developing this skill, Polman and colleagues recommend giving students access to educators with strong content knowledge. Additionally, interviews with research or clinical experts were highly effective in fostering students’ understanding of science content.

Related Briefs:

  • Bevan, B. (2011). Reframing science literacy. An ISE research brief discussing Feinstein’s "Salvaging science literacy."
  • Ballard, M. (2014). Place-based expertise and science knowledge shape civic action. An ISE research brief discussing Birmingham & Calabrese Barton, “Putting on a green carnival: Youth taking educated action on socioscientific issues.”
  • Shea, M. (2013). Negotiating Science Identities with Gender, Race, and Perceptions of Expertise Across Settings. A JLS research brief discussing Rahm’s article, “Collaborative imaginaries and multi-sited ethnography: space-time dimensions of engagement in an afterschool science programme for girls.”