Floods, food and the environment

Over the last few weeks the issue of flooding and climate change has hit the headlines. Fortunately here in Scotland we have remained largely unaffected, yet. Whatever the cause of the problems in South West England there is now very little doubt (amongst the scientific community) that changes to climate, and weather systems, have resulted from human behaviour. I think it is important that in British schools children are taught about sustainability and the environment but that we should also do what we can. Many schools have given this a try with gardening clubs or school gardens. There are many things that will grow very easily, without much effort and one of my personal favourites is pumpkin or squash, which can be cultivated from seed recovered from bought produce.


Home grown produce from northern Britain!

In recent years there has also been an increased interest in local shopping and reducing the environmental impact (in particular carbon dioxide emissions) from moving food around. It was with this in mind that we visited the Stockbridge Farmers’ Market in Edinburgh. Despite it being very cold and rather windy we had a great time exploring the great range of stalls. Some of the local vegetable growers had some fantastic produce available including purple sprouting broccoli and some fantastic foraged mushrooms.


A happy customer procures some finest Scottish cheese – a rather stinky Criffel (the cheese not the customer)

However, as I am interested in scientific literacy (see earlier posts), it is worth examining some of these environmental ideas in more detail. As with any ‘catch all’ theory or idea there may be exceptions. Food miles are no exception and one study in 2006 found that New Zealand lamb, imported to the UK, had a lower carbon footprint than lamb produced in the UK (http://www.lincoln.ac.nz/documents/2328_rr285_s13389.pdf). There are several reasons for this, mainly connected to the way lamb is produced in New Zealand and the UK. But this highlights the importance of criticality when examining a viewpoint (which is what scientific literacy is all about). So the understanding of a complex issue such as food miles certainly requires a degree of deeper consideration.


A source of local meat – Scottish style

One thing that is not really disputed is the impact of transport, and so I was pleased to hear that today prospective overseas students were being interviewed via video conferencing. This removes the need to travel at all and is a great application of technology. Failing that rail transport beats flying every time. Next week I will head to London on the sleeper train and in the autumn we are planning a holiday to Spain, through France on the TGV. It obviously takes longer but I also believe it is a more civilized way to travel, and in years to come it may become the norm, especially if we start to take climate change seriously. Perhaps this most important message is that people do what they can, and we keep talking about climate change.

Tough young teachers, PISA data & scientific literacy

Working on the Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes at the University of Dundee the BBC3 TV show Tough Young Teachers has been real of interest to staff and students (see my previous post). In a recent workshop some of our BEd4 students discussed this TV show and contrasted the education systems of England and Scotland. In some respects the classroom experiences of teachers in the two school systems are very similar. However, the interpretation (and misinterpretation) of data and statistics (in particular the recent PISA results) by politicians, policy makers and especially the media has led to, in my opinion, a simplistic and ill-informed debate about education.

Helping children, students, teachers and the wider populace, including politicians, interpret data and statistics for themselves requires scientific literacy. This is why we include this in the ITE programmes at the University of Dundee.  If you want to find out more about this issue I strongly recommend that you read Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (his website covers similar content http://www.badscience.net/). In this book the data and statistics behind homeopathy, the ridiculous ‘brain gym’ concept (still used in some schools) and the appalling MMR/autism health scare are examined in detail.

Therefore, to raise awareness of scientific literacy issues the first year education undergraduates debated and discussed climate change, and the way politicians and the media can misinterpret data for their own means. I then challenged the students to complete a short collaborative essay on the subject of scientific literacy. This was a formative task, so not assessed, and I was really impressed by the quality, and understanding of this issue. This has given me hope for the next generation of teachers, and the pupils they will go on to teach. I have decided to include one of the essays for you at the end of this post. I would be keen to hear your views on this so I can share  the feedback with our students.

Of course being scientifically literate requires you to investigate and analyse source data yourself. So you shouldn’t just accept what I am saying here..! So if you wish to analyse the PISA data (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results.htm) for yourself the UK government provides a nice spreadsheet which is more accessible than some of the tables provided by PISA themselves. You can access it here (scroll down for the spreadsheet):  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/programme-for-international-student-assessment-pisa-2012-national-report-for-england

And here is the essay written by a group of University of Dundee first year undergraduates (apart from a typo I have not edited it any way).

Scientific literacy

As stated by Millar (2007) the ability to reach ‘Scientific Literacy’ is often seen as a main goal of primary school science. However, there are different perceptions as to what it means to be scientifically literate.  Common sense knowledge of science may include vocabulary and a science based comprehension. In this assignment, a more in depth explanation of the concept of scientific literacy will be discussed in relation to reports in the media and how the subject is presented in primary schools.

Scientific literacy is a term which refers to the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts, processes, methodology, theories and observations. This includes written, numerical and technological literacy. A scientifically literate person should be able to relate to a range of knowledge and skills, in which they will willingly appreciate and comprehend the impact that science and technology has on everyday life, and if necessary, assertively question it. Furthermore, with this understanding, a scientifically literate person will be able to research and reflect critically upon media reports surrounding the topic of science, and thus, confidently take part in discussions with others involving scientific issues.

It is important for an individual to be scientifically literate, in order to understand the various ideas about science, and the scientific explanations which help make sense of how things work. In this way, the individual can make informed decisions concerning science, such as health, diets, and in a wider picture, issues which effect the environment such as energy resources.

A lack of scientific literacy can lead to inaccurate media reporting which can then lead to problems within our society. For example, it was reported by the Daily Mail (No Date) that there was a possible link between the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccination and autism. This report was based on findings from a study published by Wakefield in 1998 (NHS, 2013). Subsequent research findings have shown no link between the MMR vaccination and autism, however, the media reports have had a direct impact on society. As many as 40% of children in certain parts of the UK have not been vaccinated with the MMR vaccination due to this media scare (BBC, 2006). The percentage of two-year-olds receiving the MMR vaccination fell from a peak of 94% in 1995 to 78% by 2003 (BBC, 2013). Unfortunately due to children not being vaccinated there was an outbreak of measles in Swansea (BBC, 2013). This is just one example where scientific illiteracy has led to inaccurate media reports.

It is extremely important to teach children how to conduct fair tests within a scientific context. In order for children to gain valid results from scientific tests that they may undertake within the classroom, they must be taught how to make such tests fair. Fair testing has an impact on scientific literacy as often, when a child is able to conduct a test and look at the results, it can help them to get a better understanding of a specific concept. Conducting fair tests can also help to improve and develop conceptual scientific literacy as this enables a child to look into a concept in more depth therefore allowing them to make connections and develop a greater understanding of key terms. Ultimately, fair testing has a big influence on the development of scientific literacy so it is important that it is done correctly.

Scientific literacy refers to a depth of understanding and the ability to use the knowledge and draw conclusions from it, as well as having a knowledge of science. Poor scientific literacy can lead to inaccurate media reports, resulting in distrust with the media and negative effects on society. This can often result in panic and even outbreak of illness in some cases. It is important to ensure that this concept is being taught to children from an early age, beginning with fair testing in primary schools. Consequently, developing the skills and understanding to ensure that children are scientifically literate and can therefore decide whether scientific information is factual or not. Therefore, the concept of being scientifically literate is very important as it ensures that information is not misleading or incorrect, thus, preventing any unnecessary risks to society.


BBC. (2006) Does the MMR Jab Cause Autism? Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/horizon/mmr_prog_summary.shtml. Last accessed 26th January 2014.

BBC. (2013) Swansea measles epidemic: Worries over MMR uptake after outbreak. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-23244628. Last accessed 26th January 2014.

Daily Mail. (No Date) New evidence ‘shows MMR link to autism. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-132515/New-evidence-shows-MMR-link-autism.html. Last accessed 26th January 2014.

Millar, R. (2007) Scientific Literacy; Can the school science curriculum deliver? Communicating European Research 2005, Pages 145-150

NHS. (2013) MMR vaccine. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vaccinations/Pages/mmr-vaccine.aspx. Last accessed 26th January 2014.