First-year college students in China outperformed their American counterparts in a test of their knowledge of specific scientific concepts in mechanics, electricity, and magnetism, says a study in the journal Science.
Yet U.S. students performed at roughly the same level as the Chinese undergraduates in a measure of their broader scientific reasoning ability, according to the report, which was published late last month.
The Chinese and American students were freshmen science and engineering majors enrolled in calculus-based introductory physics courses in universities in both nations. They were tested before receiving any college-level instruction in the topics, so presumably, the researchers, who are from Ohio State University in Columbus, were gauging skills picked up in K-12.
The authors note that in China, every student is supposed to take the same physics courses in grades 8-12, which are heavily algebra-based. In the United States, on the other hand, only one out of three high school students enrolls in a two-semester physics course.
A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week