Science literacy, science knowledge

I should start this post with a caveat that I am neither a scientist nor a science educator, but I would make the case that I am scientifically literate.  There are two issues that I want to discuss here; scientific knowledge, and scientific literacy.  Both are different, yet both are related and both are disturbingly low.

I was shocked when I saw a recent report by the NSF serious lack of scientific knowledge. Just as an example,

  • 24% of americans think the sun revolves around the earth
  • 47% believe electrons are bigger than atoms
  • 45% don’t know how long it takes the sun to go around the earth.
  • 1/3 believe astrology to scientific or somewhat scientific.

These facts are certainly disturbing, and they raise serious question about the state of science education in America.  This is especially true when one considers that 40% of Americans believe that God created human beings and animal life exactly as they are less than 10,000 years ago. See:
(on an entirely personal note i do find it refreshing that belief in science and belief is god are no longer mutually exclusive and 38% of Americans believe in evolutionary theory and believe in a god that played a part in that evolution).

Studies like these should make science educators squirm.  Why do 37% of people with college degrees believe the world was created in the present form less than 10,000 ago.  How have college graduates not learned science?

Well I don’t blame the students.  It’s too easy to sit back and say “ha ha Americans are stupid” (don’t fool yourself to think Canadians do that much better in science).  It is the fault of the education system.

Why blame education? Well this is my theory (and I admit it is easier to blame science education than take personal responsibility by I will still voice my theory).  Science education in many classrooms has become about learning scientific facts, that is to say rote memorization of scienctific facts, scientific laws, and formulas for working out the mathematics. Students who want to do well on exams have figured out all you have to do is memorize the formulas.  Many (not all) classes are set up to encourage no critical engagement (see my earlier post where a Harvard Physic instructor figured out his students could learn all the newtonians laws but could not critically evaluate the world in a newtonian way). Students can reproduce memorized facts, but are unable to internalize the knowledge and do not let it influence the way they think about the world.  For many students science has become a series of memorized facts, rather than a way to look at the world which profoundly influences our understanding of the world.

So I propose that the disturbingly low knowledge of basic scientific facts, while truly disturbing, is far less so than the fact that most college graduates are not scientifically literate. I have met science majors who are not what one might identify as scientifically literate.  It is a sad fact.  Students are able to get a BsC without understanding how the scientific method works, without understanding how to conduct and/or critique an experiment or or a methodology.

What I am basically saying, and many have said this before me, is that our education system is failing our students.  Not because it isn’t teaching them anything, but it is teaching them easily forgettable facts.  If only our education system focused much more teaching students transferable skills, such as critical thinking. We might not have these problems if students left school not having memorized the periodic table or important physics formals, but rather if they left high school with the ability to think critically about science and about the world we live in, and better yet if students left if a profound curiosity to learn more about the natural world.


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