What Students Know about Science

By Chris Impey.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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Article: Electronic $US5.00

Science literacy is foundational in any society shaped by science and technology. Surveys of the U.S. general public by the National Science Foundation show an average score of less than 2/3 correct on a series of science knowledge questions, and fewer than half of the respondents show any significant understanding of the process of scientific inquiry. These measures are unchanged for two decades. At the University of Arizona, we have measured science knowledge and beliefs on scientific issues for 11,000 undergraduate students since 1989, using an instrument that overlaps with the NSF survey. This population of non-science majors is typical of ten million undergraduate students nationwide. There is a less than 10% gain in performance in the science knowledge score between the incoming freshmen and seniors who graduate having completed their requirement of three science classes. Variables such as the number of science courses and the level of pseudoscientific belief account for less than 10% of the variance in science knowledge scores. It is also clear in a related survey on where students get their information about science that the Internet is the dominant source, not the classroom, teacher, or textbook. This is the first study to track the evolution and progression of science literacy in the undergraduate population, and relate it to belief systems. If this situation is to be improved, scientists and policy makers need to decide what aspects of science knowledge and process are important for adults to know, and school and college science educators need to tailor their pedagogical approaches with those goals in mind.

Keywords: Science Literacy; Undergraduate Education, Knowledge, Belief Systems, Sources of Information, Pseudoscience

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp.167-180. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.559MB).

Chris Impey

University Distinguished Professor, Department of Astronomy, Tucson, Arizona, USA

Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Professor and Deputy Head of the Department in charge of all academic programs. His research interests are observational cosmology, gravitational lensing, and the evolution and structure of galaxies. He has 160 refereed publications and 60 conference proceedings, and his work has been supported by $18 million in grants from NASA and the NSF. He has won eleven teaching awards, and has been heavily involved in curriculum and instructional technology development. He is a past vice president of the American Astronomical Society. He has also been an NSF Distinguished Teaching Scholar, a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, and the Carnegie Council on Teaching’s Arizona Professor of the Year. He has written over thirty popular articles on cosmology and astrobiology, and co-authored two introductory textbooks. He has had four popular science books published, The Living Cosmos, How It Ends, How It Began, and Dreams of Other Worlds. He was a co-chair of the Education and Public Outreach Study Group for the Astronomy Decadal Survey of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2009 he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.