A common misperception about American students is that they are in an academic free-fall when compared to their counterparts in other parts of the world, especially in the study of science. Actually, students here aren’t doing as poorly on international tests as many adults think. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Smithsonian Institution revealed that a plurality of Americans (44 percent) wrongly believe that U.S. 15-year-olds rank at the bottom internationally, when in fact they stand somewhere in the middle. Not great, but still far from the cellar.
It’s no real mystery why most people overstate our students’ weakness. It’s hard to avoid the constant red alerts coming from the media and the Department of Education about this country’s slipping standards and falling behind in STEM-related subjects.
Oddly, the survey also found that, despite this perception, respondents didn’t believe science should be given greater attention in school. They were more likely to pick math or language skills as more important. Thirty percent of respondents chose math, while 19 percent said English, grammar or writing. Others pointed to history, social studies or government. Overall, 45 percent mentioned some aspect of STEM education.
Responding to a question about why young people choose not to pursue a degree in math and science, nearly half of Americans said that the main reason is mostly because they think these subjects are too difficult. Just 22 percent believed it is because young people think math and science are not useful for their careers, while 20 percent said it is because they think these subjects are simply too boring.
The Pew survey, in addition to gauging perceptions about knowledge levels, also included a quiz to determine knowledge of science and technology among adults. According to the results, there is wide variety in what adults know. For instance, two-thirds correctly said rust is an example of a chemical reaction and 77 percent correctly said the continents have been moving for millions of years and will continue to shift. Yet only 47 percent correctly said electrons are smaller than atoms. A majority correctly noted that nanotechnology involves small things and natural gas is the resource extracted by “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents correctly said the gas most closely associated with global warming is carbon dioxide. When Pew last posed this question in 2009, 65 percent answered correctly. The Smithsonian noted that the drop is puzzling, given the increased prominence of climate change as a national and international issue.