In mid-January, the Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 was released by the National Science Board. The goal of this report is to provide quantitative information about US science for private and public policymakers, as mandated by law.
This study is full of interesting information, and feel free to point out any gems that you dig up. For now, let’s focus on a couple of sections, namely science education and the section entitled “Public Attitudes and Understanding.” In science education, there are both reasons to cheer and be alarmed; as for the public understanding of science….be afraid…be very afraid.
From 1990 to 2005, US students (regardless of gender, race or class) seem to have been improving in both math and science in the earlier primary school years of school. But in the upper grade levels, they are actually doing worse, particularly in science, with test scores declining. Why is this? Since the scientific subject matter becomes more complex and diverse in high school, do we begin to lose students due to both a lack of interest and/or ability? It is not due to less-qualified teachers, since in high school, close to 90% of science and math teachers have at least a college degree in the field they are teaching, while in the lower to middle school grades, that proportion drops to 30-50%.
Unfortunately, the race/class gap in the “quality’ of teachers is bigger than ever, with a good inverse correlation between the number of science/math teachers holding an advanced degree and the proportion of minority and low-income students in a particular school. These same schools lacking MS or PhD-holding teachers also had a much higher number of educators working “out-of-field” and/or who had three or less years of experience. Obviously these differences mostly boil down to the money that is available to the school district, and finding ways to increase funds for fiscally-challenged schools, although far from trivial, is a straight-forward strategy or solution to the problem (I’m not saying that it is easy to find money for schools, but just that implementing a solution is a different problem from not having one.)
In my opinion, much more work and investigation needs to go into why the gains made early-on in science education (which are blind to class/gender/race) not only do not translate, but get worse at the education stages that are the most influential in leading students to their secondary education. How can we better examine this disparity between grade level performance so as to understand it and reverse it? What policy changes can be made nationally and locally to address this important problem?
Moving on to the public’s basic science knowledge, one could think that we have no science education at all in out schools, based on some of these answers. Let me provide you with my shockers:
Those facts I was shocked that the public did not know:
1. Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (This one was answered “False” correctly by 60% of men and only 30% of women; it is the women that disappointed me here.)
2. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (Answered “True” correctly by only 55% of men and 75% of women; hello guys, this is one you should know!!)
3. The universe began with a huge explosion. (Answered “True” correctly by 40% of men and 27% of women; must have asked this question in the Bible belt…)
Those facts with which the public impressed me with their knowledge:
1. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (Answered “True” correctly by 85% of men and 75% of women.)
2. A doctor tells a couple that their genetic makeup means that they’ve got one in four chances
of having a child with an inherited illness. Does this mean that if their first child has the illness,
the next three will not? (Answered “No” correctly by 90% of men and 84% of women.)
3. A doctor tells a couple that their genetic makeup means that they’ve got one in four chances of having a
child with an inherited illness. Does this mean that each of the couple’s children will have the same risk
of suffering from the illness? (Answered “Yes” correctly by 75% of both genders).
The last two are obviously related, and even address a bit of mathematics knowledge in there too! With the popularity of “doctor dramas”, these genetics questions are becoming a breeze, aren’t they?
1. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Answered “Earth around Sun” correctly by 66% of men and 46% of women; come on, why is this one not over 90%???? Where’s Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo when you need them!)
However, I want to focus on one in particular that really goes to the heart of an issue that has concerned me for a while. A question about experimental design was confirmatory for me, revealing that only a minority of Americans really understand the scientific process:
Two scientists want to know if a certain drug is effective against high blood pressure. The first scientist
wants to give the drug to 1,000 people with high blood pressure and see how many of them experience
lower blood pressure levels. The second scientist wants to give the drug to 500 people with high blood
pressure and not give the drug to another 500 people with high blood pressure, and see how many in
both groups experience lower blood pressure levels. Which is the better way to test this drug??
Only 40% of respondents, regardless of gender, answered correctly that the second strategy would be more effective due to the inclusion of a control group. If the scientific process is not understood on a basic level, then scientists, and those who report on science in the popular press, need to be very careful with how results are disseminated, since they cannot count on the average person to understand the difference between results acquired appropriately (following the scientific process) and peer-reviewed, and those that are not. These pieces of information need to be spelled out explicitly for them.
Perhaps I’ll call Fox and see if I can get a pilot started for a new primetime drama about grad students and post-docs conducting research at the bench. If there are enough good-looking people, sex and emotional outbursts in it, I bet I could teach the public the scientific process!