How Much Do Americans Know About Science?

An exclusive poll shows Americans crave stronger mathematics, science schooling for U.S. kids

Many Americans think U.S. teens perform even worse on standardized science tests than they actually do, according to a new national survey. Tim Pannell / Corbis

The idea that the nation faces a crisis in science education has more than hit home: Many Americans think U.S. teens perform even worse on standardized science tests than they actually do.

That’s according to a new national survey by Smithsonian and the Pew Research Center that also found unusually strong support for boosting math and science instruction in school.

The survey, done to gauge public scientific literacy and educational priorities, involved a representative sample of 1,006 adults in the continental United States who were reached in March on a landline or cellphone.

Respondents received on average what might be considered a passing grade on the quiz portion of the survey, answering 9 out of 13 questions correctly more than half the time. Men scored slightly better than women, though women were better informed about the threat of antibiotic resistance.

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Science and technology in the news rang a bell more often than not. A majority correctly noted that nanotechnology involves small things and natural gas is the resource extracted by “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing. The youngest group, 18- to 29-year-olds, matched others on most knowledge questions but flunked the one about fracking. Fifty-eight percent of respondents correctly said the gas most closely associated with global warming is carbon dioxide, compared with 65 percent who got the question right when Pew last posed it in a survey, in 2009. That decline is difficult to explain, given that climate change seems to be a more prominent issue than before.

Supporters of strengthening science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education warn that U.S. students are falling behind other nations in technical subjects. This gloomy forecast has sunk in. Asked how 15-year-olds in the United States compare with those in other developed nations on a standardized science test known as PISA, for Program for International Student Assessment, respondents tended to rank American youths at the bottom of the pack. In fact, they place in the middle, scoring 17th out of the 34 developed nations in 2009, the most recent year for which results are available.

The survey included a question that has apparently not been asked in such open-ended fashion in a poll before: What one subject should schools emphasize more? People’s answers fell into 12 main categories, with nearly half of respondents offering a STEM subject: 30 percent said mathematics, 11 percent said science and 4 percent said computers or computer science.

The response, says Scott Keeter, Pew’s research director, “reflects a perception that the U.S. is at risk in those areas, that American superiority might be slipping away and needs to be addressed.”

After math the subject most often said to need more emphasis in school was reading and writing, favored by 19 percent of those surveyed. Surprisingly few respondents, just 4 percent, called for stronger computer education, perhaps because American youngsters are perceived as having adequate, if not excessive, exposure to computers.

When asked the key reason young people don’t pursue degrees in science and math, 22 percent of those surveyed said such degrees weren’t useful to their careers and 20 percent said the subjects were “too boring.” By far the most common response, though, was that science and math were “too hard,” a belief held by 46 percent of respondents.

That might be a problem educators need to study.

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