Science 'Literacy' Deficient in Many UA Grads

Article excerpt

Gaps in knowledge of concepts, terms consistent over years

UA students can make it to graduation with large gaps in their scientific knowledge and without a clear idea of how to apply the subject outside of the classroom.

It's a problem, say some educators in the University of Arizona department of astronomy.

Despite a national focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, students are about as scientifically literate as they were 20 years ago, according to a study led by Chris Impey, deputy department head of astronomy.

Impey began measuring the scientific literacy of students in some general education astronomy courses in 1988. He tests familiarity with scientific terminology and concepts, an understanding of how science works and the ability to apply this knowledge to daily life.

At the beginning of the semester, students receive a survey with questions such as whether antibiotics kill both viruses and bacteria and whether the oxygen humans breathe comes from plants. These questions align with those used by the National Science Foundation in a similar survey administered to the general public over the phone.

The other part of Impey's survey asks questions about beliefs in pseudoscience such as astrology and lucky numbers as well as attitudes about the importance of science to society.

Impey collects demographic data including gender, UA class standing, major and the number of UA science courses a student has taken. He administers the survey to about 500 students each semester and has more than 12,000 responses so far.

An analysis of the data from 1988 to 2008 found UA freshmen perform slightly better than the NSF results for the general public - a random sampling of Americans over the age of 18 - on the knowledge portion of the assessment, said a paper by Impey and his colleagues in the Journal of College Science Teaching.

Students who have taken two or three of the three general education science courses required by the UA for non-science students perform 10 to 15 percent better than freshmen.

"It's sort of a discouragingly small gain," Impey said.

Belief in pseudoscience is high. About 40 percent of all respondents to the survey said some people have psychic powers while about 25 percent believe in lucky numbers.

These results are disconcerting, Impey said. Undergraduate courses may be the last formal exposure people have to scientific topics before becoming citizens who make decisions and vote on policies that affect the field.

The results have remained consistent throughout the past 20 years.

"To me, that says the pedagogy and nature of courses hasn't changed in that time," Impey said. …