Sophomores Are Called Uninformed About Science

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Arlington, Va--High-school sophomores as a group are potentially twice as likely as adults to be literate about science, but they remain unacceptably uninformed about the field, the director of a federally funded survey said at a conference here.

Some 7 percent of the 10th graders tested demonstrated an understanding of the methods of science, knowledge of basic scientific terms, and an awareness of the impact of science and technology on society, said Jon D. Miller, director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University.

That proportion will likely more than double by the time the students graduate from college, he added, since the students will be taking one or two additional science courses in high school and some college-level courses.

By contrast, Mr. Miller said, only 6 percent of adults had demonstrated scientific literacy on a similar survey released in January. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1989.)

"This result has encouraging and discouraging aspects," Mr. Miller told participants at the annual forum on school science sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The effective rate of scientific literacy in the next generation of adults [could be] about 15 percent, which would be an improvement over the present situation," he said. But,"Is 15 percent enough to fuel an increasingly technological economy and to sustain our democratic traditions? I think that it is inadequate for either of these purposes."

Cannot Teach 'by Osmosis'

Mr. Miller's data represent preliminary findings from a longitudinal survey of 6,000 middle- and high-school students funded by the National Science Foundation. As part of the survey, which began in 1986, the students complete science and mathematics achievement tests, an evaluation of each course taken each semester, and two questionnaires. In addition, researchers also survey teachers and parents.

The preliminary findings suggest that students must take more science and math courses to develop greater understanding of the subjects, Mr. Miller said.

"You cannot teach science by osmosis," he said. "Being in the same building won't do it. You've got to be in the same classroom."

Currently, however, "formal instruction in science and mathematics has become voluntary in most American high schools."

The scientific knowledge of prospective teachers must also be upgraded, Mr. Miller added. Although adults with college degrees in the earlier survey were more likely to be scientifically literate, he said, among college graduates, the least likely to be literate were those who majored in education.

"That points to part of the problem," he said. "We should not be terribly surprised that many programs [to improve science education] flounder when we try to have them implemented."

Iris R. Weiss, president of Horizon Research Inc., a North Carolina-based research firm, said improving science literacy will require curricular reforms, as well as additional coursework. Citing responses to an informal survey conducted by the aaas, Ms. Weiss said "there is an inconsistency between what we say is important and what we are doing" in classrooms.

Vol. 09, Issue 07

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