Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing and colleagues assessed the fundamental science knowledge of more than 500 students at 13 U.S. colleges in courses ranging from introductory biology to advanced ecology.
Laurel Hartley of the University of Colorado Denver, who started the work as a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University; Charles "Andy" Anderson; Brook Wilke; Jonathon Schramm; Joyce Parker, all from Michigan State University; and Charlene D'Avanzo of Hampshire College found most students do not understand the processes that transform carbon.
The study, published in the journal BioScience, found most students incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
"When you see a tree growing, it's a lot easier to believe that tree is somehow coming out of the soil rather than the scientific reality that it's coming out of the air," Anderson says in a statement.
The students' beliefs of the carbon cycle are deeply ingrained -- such as the misconception that plants get most of their nutrients from the soil -- therefore, instructors should help students understand that the use of such "everyday, informal reasoning" runs counter to true scientific literacy, Anderson adds.