Science education in schools should help to prepare students for the multiple roles that they will play as adult citizens. These include both private roles involving personal decisions about economics, consumption and lifestyle (consumer, worker, learner) and public roles involving their influence on public policy (voter, volunteer, advocate). Playing those roles responsibly will require scientific knowledge. For example, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for research-based reports that call for collective human action on an unprecedented scale. Yet IPCC reports, in particular, require readers to have substantial knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, atmospheric science, and statistics. It is the responsibility of our schools to prepare students who can read, evaluate, and respond to reports such as these in informed and responsible ways.
Current research shows that most students lack the scientific knowledge needed for responsible citizenship. This includes knowledge of basic processes that occur in environmental systems, such as photosynthesis, cellular respiration, combustion, reproduction, and evapotranspiration. It also includes understanding of general aspects of scientific reasoning such as the hierarchy of systems at different scales and the nature and uses of scientific models, as well as an understanding of how humans alter natural processes in socio-ecological systems. Educational research can help to bridge the gap between what students need to know and what they currently understand. One promising direction involves the development of learning progressions: descriptions of increasingly sophisticated ways of thinking about or understanding a topic. The development and empirical validation of learning progressions is an iterative process, in which initial frameworks provide the basis for development of assessments and teaching experiments, which in turn lead to improvements in the frameworks. This work on learning progressions can provide the basis for dialogue among scientists, educational researchers, developers of standards, assessments, and curricula, and classroom teachers that is necessary for students to develop the scientific knowledge and practices of ecological literacy.