February 18, 2014

Obstacles to Improving Science Education

Gulf Coast Regional Science Olympiad
Gulf Coast Regional Science Olympiad
Some depressing news was released last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's meeting in Chicago. A 2012 survey conducted by the National Science Foundation found that 26% of the 2,200 Americans surveyed failed the following question:
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
The story was reported by NPR and included a few other gems:
  • Only 39% correctly recognized that the universe started with an explosion.
  • Only 48% correctly answered that modern humans developed from earlier species.
  • Just over half of respondents recognized that antibiotics are not effective against viruses.
It would be easy to point to results like these and argue that we need to increase our investment in science education. I'd certainly agree with such a suggestion. We do need better funding for scientific research and science education (and reality-based eduction in general).

Of course, improving funding and access to reality-based science education is only one strategy. Another would be to identify and change some of the non-financial obstacles to science education. For example, we might take a look at why science education is actively resisted by significant numbers of Americans today. We'd likely discover that many oppose science education because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Once again, religious belief is interfering with scientific literacy and limiting progress.

I suspect we'd also find that the widespread dissemination of pseudoscientific garbage, quackery, and other woo by the entertainment and news media, which are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from one another, is an important contributing factor. This problem has become bad enough that it is even beginning to creep into what are usually thought of as fairly reputable sources of science news. We are paying a price for allowing our media to abandon their mission of informing the public and replace it with one of ad sales.

We might also find that the local control of public education, rather than something like a federal science curriculum taught in every state, creates pockets in inequity. Some children may receive solid science education while others receive creationist nonsense or learn about science without ever hearing of evolution.

We do need to do a much better job of funding science and science education. It also seems to be in our interest to see what we can do about some of the other obstacles to quality science education. I fear that better funding alone, while necessary, might not be sufficient.

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