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Scientific Literacy
(Released September 2007)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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Undergraduate Science Education


U.S. undergraduates must take general education requirements not included in the curricula of other first world countries. College students in Japan and Europe majoring in the humanities do not need to take university level science courses. U.S. non-science majors frequently take from one to three science courses in college. The single biggest factor affecting levels of scientific literacy among adults who did not major in science is the number of science courses taken in college (Miller, 2002). As a result, even though younger U.S. students lag behind their contemporaries in other countries, the level of science literacy among U.S. adults is frequently greater than most European and Asian countries. Only Sweden outperformed the U.S. in the 2005 assessment of scientific literacy (Miller, 2006).

U.S. colleges frequently find it difficult to resolve how best to teach science to non-science majors. To offer one prominent example, in 2001 the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, made a point of emphasizing the need to effectively teach science to undergraduates. However, in the five years Summers served as Harvard's president, the university failed to overhaul the core curriculum (Dizikes, 2006). A committee formed in 2004 failed to come to a consensus on the definition of scientific literacy. While some faculty members believed an understanding of scientific literacy required lab work, other faculty members emphasized knowledge of relevant contemporary issues, such as cloning and stem cell research, or understanding of the history and philosophy of science.

At George Mason University professors James Trefil and Robert Hazen joined forces to develop an undergraduate course focused on introducing non-science majors to an overview of science knowledge. Together they wrote The Sciences: an Integrated Approach, a text that has since been adopted by many U.S. colleges. Regardless of the approach taken by individual universities, Miller's results have demonstrated the value of teaching science courses at the undergraduate level. College enrollment has been on the rise over the past few decades, but still over one-third of high-school graduates do not enroll in college promptly after graduation (SEI, 2006). A disproportionate number of students from low income families do not attend college. For those who never attend college, and those for whom college serves only as a distant memory, non-academic sources of science information provide increasingly important sources of knowledge.

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