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Are College Students Learning Enough Science?

American Academy Study Proposes Ways to Strengthen Scientific Literacy in America

2/1/2011

Press Release

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Nearly all American undergraduates take at least one science-related course in college. For many, this coursework marks their last engagement with formal science education. Yet the pace of scientific and technological change means that all adults must be prepared to learn and evaluate new science information after they leave schooling. College graduates, no matter their career, should be proficient in this regard.

“In the decades ahead, the number and nature of new scientific issues reaching the public-policy agenda will not be limited to subjects that might have been studied in school but will reflect the dynamic of modern science and technology,” writes Jon D. Miller, a contributor to the American Academy’s latest publication, Science and the Educated American: A Core Component of Liberal Education.

This volume explores whether American colleges and universities are providing students with the foundation necessary for lifelong scientific learning. Jerrold Meinwald, co-editor of the volume and the Goldwin Smith Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Cornell University, suggests that “we need a widespread reexamination and reevaluation of the contents as well as the methods of presentation employed in science courses designed to be of interest and value for all.”

The volume targets university administrators and faculty members who are interested in assessing and improving their institutions’ curricula. In particular, detailed descriptions of five university science courses highlight innovative methods for conveying complex science information to non-science majors.

Several common themes emerge in the volume:
  • Without a basic level of scientific literacy, the public cannot rely on even the best science journalism and communications to equip them with the ability to make informed decisions about science issues.
  • Science courses belong in the liberal arts curriculum for the benefit of both science and non-science majors.
  • Teaching science should convey the wonders and rewards of science but also the limits of science and the dangers of misapplying it.
  • Science and the humanities have much more in common than is generally appreciated.
Science and the Educated American grew out of an American Academy conference and study, Science in the Liberal Arts Curriculum. The study is co-chaired by Jerrold Meinwald and John G. Hildebrand, Regents Professor of Neuroscience, with joint appointments in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Entomology, and Molecular & Cellular Biology, at the University of Arizona. Thirty-four colleges and universities participated in the study, which focuses on the challenges of and opportunities for teaching science in a general education context.

Contributors to the volume include:

Jon Clardy, Harvard Medical School
Diane Ebert-May, Michigan State University
Martha P. Haynes, Cornell University
Robert M. Hazen, Carnegie Institution for Science; George Mason University
Sally G. Hoskins, City College of the City University of New York
Chris Impey, University of Arizona
Darcy B. Kelley, Columbia University
Eugene H. Levy, Rice University
David R. Liu, Harvard College; Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Jon D. Miller, University of Michigan
Jennifer L. Momsen, North Dakota State University
Richard A. Muller, University of California, Berkeley
Don M. Randel, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Frank H.T. Rhodes, Cornell University
Elena Bray Speth, Saint Louis University
James Trefil, George Mason University
Brian N. Tse, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

A copy of the volume may be downloaded free of charge at https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/publication.aspx?d=333.

The volume complements two recently released publications based on Academy-sponsored studies:
Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (www.amacad.org) is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. Current Academy research focuses on science and technology policy; global security; social policy; the humanities and culture; and education. With headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Academy’s work is advanced by its 4,600 elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs from around the world.

 

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