Some good news for science and math teachers: Most Americans say they liked math and science in school.
That’s one of the findings in a new survey by the Pew Research Center, which conducted a nationally representative survey this summer among a sample of nearly 5,000 adults. The survey included an oversample of adults who are working in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. Pew also analyzed the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and data from the 1990 and 2000 censuses.
Three-quarters of American adults said they liked science classes in grades K-12, and 58 percent said they liked math classes. Almost half of Americans said they liked both science and math.
The survey also asked respondents to choose whether the subject matter or the teaching was the main reason they liked these classes. Most people pointed to the subject matter: 61 percent said they liked math classes because of the subject matter. Forty percent of Americans who disliked math classes blamed the teaching.
For science, 68 percent said they liked those classes because of the subject itself. Among people who disliked science in school, just 36 percent said it was because of how the classes were taught. Most blamed the subject matter.
However, most Americans said science and math education are “no better than average” compared with other developed nations. They blamed limited parental involvement, a lack of student work ethic, and a diminished interest in learning. About half of the public said teachers rarely use methods that help students think critically and problem solve, and they don’t spend enough time on these subjects in elementary school.
According to the Pew survey, most people who liked science classes enjoyed the labs and hands-on learning experiences. But 36 percent of people who disliked science classes said it was because they didn’t think knowing science would be useful for them in the future—and 46 percent said the classes were too hard.
While the survey didn’t break down the reasons people disliked math, Education Week Teacher columnist Justin Minkel recently wrote that math doesn’t have to “suck.” Instead, he argued for math instruction to be filled with “as much color, construction, meaning, deep thinking, and sensory experiences as possible.”
Minkel pointed out that right now math instruction varies from classroom to classroom. Consider this example: “In one 3rd grade classroom, students play math games, build things, and debate conjectures; right next door, the kids chant ‘rules’ and dutifully fill in long columns of problems like underage accountants.”
Researchers and educators alike have long been interested in how to get more students interested in science and math. Last year, a national poll commissioned by Lockheed Martin, an aerospace and defense contracting company, found that only 38 percent of teachers said most of their students are naturally interested in science, technology, engineering, and math subjects.
Some districts—in a move supported by research—have turned to digital games to get students engaged in math lessons. And research-backed professional development programs aim to improve teachers’ science instruction by having them encourage students to vocalize their understanding throughout the learning process.
The Pew survey also looked at the gender gaps in liking science and math. Men were more likely than women to say they liked both math and science classes. Women were slightly more likely to say they disliked both. But women were more likely to gravitate toward science classes than math—31 percent of women liked only science classes, compared to 26 percent of men.
Women were also more likely than men to say they didn’t pursue careers in STEM because they struggled in STEM classes or lost interest in the subjects. They were also more likely than men to point to cost and time barriers as reasons for not pursuing the subjects in their careers. A previous study found that women are 1.5 times more likely to drop out of the STEM pipeline after Calculus 1 than men are, which is likely because women tend to start and end the course with lower confidence in their math skills.
For more on good STEM teaching, see this collection of articles written by an award-winning science educator:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.