Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176006
Story Retrieval Date: 5/18/2013 10:21:03 PM CST
Can you explain the carbon cycle and how it is driving climate change?
Most American college students can’t, according to a recent study from Michigan State University, East Lansing. The study concluded that U.S. schools need to change how they teach science so students link classroom concepts to real-world applications.
"Students have an inadequate fundamental understanding," said researcher Charles Anderson, who teaches education at Michigan State University. “As a result they are unable to apply” the science they learn.
Chicago students are no exception. In 2010, only 9 percent of juniors in Chicago Public Schools met basic college readiness standards on the science portion of the ACT exam, according to the Illinois Department of Education.
Although Anderson said the ACT does not test the same specifics looked at in his study, the lack of scientific literacy is part of a general trend.
The study, which tested the core scientific knowledge of 500 students at 13 U.S. universities, found that students were unable to explain the basic scientific principles behind major issues such as global warming.
It’s “a fairly generally understood limitation,” said Donald Wink, a chemistry and education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In his own classes, he said has seen that students cannot apply the science they learn in textbooks to the real world.
For example, “counting calories in a diet,” he explained, is related to measuring “calories in a chemical change.”
When asked what happens to fat when a person loses weight, students in the study did not apply the principle of the conservation of matter—that matter cannot be destroyed but, rather, fat molecules leave the body as water and air. They believed, because of the way everyday language is used, that fat just “burned off” and disappeared.
They thought about weight loss informally and unscientifically. The study found that this type of reasoning means students are unable to apply the concepts they learn to other major issues, such as global warming, which exists because of the carbon cycle.
Scientists have found that Earth’s rising temperature is driven by the consumption of carbon-based fossil fuels. Humans burn these fuels, such as coal and oil, to run electrical power plants and cars.
Carbon dioxide emissions are retained in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and act like a blanket, keeping heat energy from being released into space - the greenhouse effect. The increase in fossil fuels used on Earth is increasing retained heat, driving up temperatures.
“If people don't really understand the processes that affect carbon dioxide concentrations, then they will have trouble making sense of discussions” about different ways to deal with it and its effects, Anderson said.
Anderson and Wink both said they make sure the future teachers who they train know to include these real-life applications of science.
He said testing often expects students to know only “a series of facts” that “don’t lead to science reasoning.”
Matt Vanover, a spokesman from the Illinois Board of Education, said the state has experts who create exams such as the Prairie State Achievement Examination, taken by Illinois high school juniors, and that state guidelines do expect students to know Earth sciences, including the carbon cycle.
Anderson said students do need to know these concepts, but high school education needs to be “less detail-based” and more tied to applications.
By college, students are able to “make good grades without fully understanding” scientific processes Anderson said.
“College professors may believe that their students should have learned these ideas in high school,” he said. They are often only "piling details on an inadequate foundation."