Welcome to our new STEAM series. For the next two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. First up, the value of science literacy.

Science is used for curing diseases, taking photos of Pluto, and expanding the horizons of humankind. “Science” is also used for touting the dubious benefits of butter coffee, pomegranate juice and magnetic wristbands.

Building scientific literacy skills, experts say, can help shield people from suspect claims like these and inform us more deeply about key issues affecting our world. It’s why when we talk about the S in STEAM, educators should emphasize these skills alongside more traditional scientific learning.

To be clear, science literacy doesn’t mean a textbook knowledge of science facts like the periodic table. Scientific literacy is a knowledge foundation of concepts and processes that help people make decisions and analyze and evaluate what they read or hear—whether the topic is genetically modified food or climate change.

Instead of teaching kids how long it takes for light from the sun to reach earth, the better question is how scientists figured it out. Or why they figured it out.

“The types of questions in science literacy tests don’t reflect the kinds of things real scientists think or care about,” Faye Flam, a science journalist and author, wrote last month in Forbes. Her piece attacked an article in TIME that painted science literacy as knowledge of specific facts like the chemical makeup of Mars. “Science literacy tests make science out to be a set of dry, disconnected facts—and yet it is the connections that make science so interesting,” she added.

Flam writes that instead of teaching kids how long it takes for light from the sun to reach earth, the better question is how scientists figured it out. Or why they figured it out. Those questions require deeper exploration and questioning, and can nurture a sense of curiosity about the scientific world.

How to get there? Educators in Pittsburgh are introducing kids to scientific thinking and questioning with hands-on learning. For example, at a Citizen Science Lab workshop in early August, students explored how substances like caffeine and sugar affect their own heart rates. The Lab, a project of Duquesne University, hosts afterschool and summer programs that let kids explore scientific concepts. It also hosts adult workshops, like a five-day course introducing people to plant-microbe interactions.

Additionally, 28 STEAM grants, administered by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, are being rolled out in Pittsburgh-area public schools. Mt. Lebanon High School is using its grant to start a “suburban agriculture” cross-curricular project where students will grow, harvest, and prepare organic vegetables while learning the importance of sustainable foods in a suburban area.

Such programs can help ensure that the next generation will narrow the gaps that the Pew Charitable Trusts found between scientists and the average Joe on controversial issues. Only 37 percent of U.S. adults, for example, thought it was safe to eat genetically modified foods; yet among scientists, 88 percent thought GMOs were safe. Similar divides were evident on topics like human evolution (98 percent of scientists believe humans evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of U.S. adults) and climate change.divorce-rate-in-maine_per-capita-consumption-of-margarine-us

Plus, seeing how the scientific process works first-hand can help kids avoid getting duped by inaccurate maps, statistics (divorce rates in Maine correlate with per capita consumption of margarine, for example, but that does not mean they cause each other), and other data-driven claims in our increasingly data-driven lives.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has said, “Science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow’s problems flow.” It is also a route to help today’s kids make much more mundane (but still important) choices about what to eat, buy, and, ultimately, who to vote for.