Small number aware of scientific impacts

By Lori Wilkosz

Only about one in 18 United States adults are scientifically literate enough to know how nuclear power, acid rain or health would affect them as consumers and citizens, a recent survey stated.

The survey, conducted by the NIU Public Opinion Laboratory, states that only 6 percent of Americans over 18 show a knowledge of scientific concepts and how science impacts society and the daily lives of individuals.

The survey included more than 2,000 respondents who were asked to answer questions in three areas. The first area measured knowledge of the process of science, the second measured one’s understanding of scientific terms and concepts and the third area evaluated respondents’ understanding of how science affects society.

The results showed that 12 percent understood the process of science, 28 percent understood scientific terms and concepts and 50 percent understood the impact of science on society.

According to lab director Jon Miller, respondents who had college science were more scientifically literate than those who had only taken high school science classes. There was about a 40 percent variation in the correct answers given by the respondents who were educated in college science courses and those who were educated in high school science courses.

The difference can be attributed to how the courses are taught, Miller said. “High school science courses tend to be very big on teaching memorization of scientific terms and definitions, where as colleges teach the theories and understanding of science,” he said.

“It is clear that it is the science course experience rather than the general degree experience that makes a difference,” he said. “By inference, this result suggests that the high school science experience has little impact on subsequent adult literacy.”

High school students now are required to take two science courses to be admitted to Illinois universities. It is recommended that students take three science courses, and this may be required by 1992.

Britain, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries plan on joining the United States in their research of scientific literacy. The comparison of the results between these countries is very important, Miller said.

Miller’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation. The surveys are conducted through the Department of Public Opinion via telephone by about 150 interviewers. They conduct between 50,000 and 60,000 surveys each year.