The word science derives from the Latin scire, meaning to know or to understand the world. Within their fields of expertise, practising scientists have developed canons of knowledge, methodological standards, inquiry practices, culture and language. Science begins with a musing on yet unanswered questions (Van Sickle and Koester, 2017): What is happening here? What is connected to what? Depending on the focus of their questions, observations, and methods, those who do science as a profession self-identify as physicists, chemists, geologists, astronomers, etc. The knowledge they acquire about the universe and myriad relationships that exist within it is very often used to make decisions that are made on our behalf every day. Thus, being science literate serves important social functions.

The question, ‘To whom is the knowledge that scientists generate accessible, meaningful, and beneficial?’ is important to the field of science. Trefil (2008) asked, ‘To what degree is it possible to produce a kind of science education that allows a human being to deal with issues that come across our horizon, in the news or elsewhere?’ Paul deHart Hurd (1990:411) has called for a ‘lived’ science curriculum in which ‘the major instructional standards and intellectual skills are those to enable individuals to cope with changes in science/technology, society, and the dimensions of human welfare’. In such a lived curriculum, explained Hurd, students would be positioned as citizens who know how to use science knowledge and who are able to distinguish evidence from propaganda and knowledge from opinion. The science literate citizen would be willing to explore the ethical and moral issues in science and technology and to recognise when there were not enough data to make a rational decision. Along these same lines, Angier (2007) has urged her readers to ‘ask’ a statistic, ‘Who discovered you, reported you? Was it an interested party with an economic, emotional, or political stake in the outcome?’ (p. 68).

Historically, science education curriculum has been structured as a normative, school-centric pathway toward achieving science literacy (whether one becomes an actual scientist or not). This process has not always been an inclusive or fair one, quite often privileging some students over others. Hodson (1985) noted that ‘the late 1950s marked the end of a long period of stability in the school science curriculum’ (p. 25), which characteristically idealised scientists as being ‘objective, open-minded, unbiased and possessing a critical and infallible method’ (p. 27). This world view also presumed that scientists were mostly white males of European descent. Scholars in the field of culturally relevant pedagogy (Delpit, 1988; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Lee, 2003) have argued that we need to find ways to generate congruence for culturally and linguistically diverse students and their natural ways of knowing the world (in Koester, 2015). Too often, science students sense no semiotic connection with the content. Harvard history of physics professor Peter Galison has noted the thoroughness with which the public image of science has been ‘drained of all joy’ and ‘alien to their existence’ (in Angier, 2007:12). Factors such as lack of relevance of science course work to students’ lives as well as the perceived lack of social value or impacts on improving conditions for their communities have caused under-represented minorities to leave the sciences (Bonous-Hammarth, 2000). Addressing the ‘So What?’ of science education curriculum has become an urgent problem of practice – of force and motion, of alienation and retreat.

Fully acknowledging this problem, the National Research Council (1996) has declared that learning science is ‘something students do – not something that is done to them’ (p. 21). There is now a national mandate for achieving science literacy for all (Lee, 2003; National Research Council, 1996; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Accordingly, one can ask: What conditions can lead to the creation of science classes which are inclusive, participatory, reflective and even joyful? How can science education serve a social purpose and catalyse personal inquiry beyond the classroom because the learning is relevant and actually matters? Dewey (1938) characterised such learning experiences as both educative and democratic.

Theories and research on progressive science education call for reforms and have been most loudly championed by John Dewey. Dewey argued for a kind of science education curriculum that affords all learners the opportunities to learn, appreciate, and apply science knowledge in ways that add value to their own personal lives. By design and intention, progressive science education foregrounds the axiology – the worth-it-ness – of science learning. It does not, however, attempt to unpack the complex construct called STEM education or the post-Sputnik political and economic imperatives that led to its creation. Progressive science education also does not seek to name, categorise, or privilege any one named/branded approach or method or to minimise or displace the important traditions of situated, constructivist scientific inquiry (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Progressive science educators pose the essential question: how can we design curriculum which offers functional levels of scientific literacy to all learners – that is, to be able to write, think, interact with, imagine, create, communicate and comprehend science talk by building relationships not only with the words of science but with its actions, impacts, and cultural intersections, too? Progressive science education speaks to possibilities more than conformities. As such, its practices are emergent and at times, considerably artistic in nature.