Pew: Teens understand science better than the public thinks

Posted By Kristen Butler,  |  April 23, 2013 at 9:42 AM
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About 44 percent of people in the U.S. think that American teenagers rank near the bottom on international science tests, a new Pew Research Center poll found, when, in fact, U.S. students rank in the middle among developed countries. Perhaps more surprising is that 7 percent believed U.S. teenagers ranked among the top students internationally.

The survey asked 1,006 adults an open-ended question about which subject they thought should get more focus in elementary and secondary schools and about 30 percent of respondents answered math and arithmetic while about 19 percent said English, grammar, writing and reading.

Science was chosen by just 11 percent of participants. Among those who picked science, there was a partisan divide. An estimated 17 percent of Democrats wanted more science education, while only 7 percent of Republicans said the same.

Nearly half of Americans, 46 percent, say the main reason that young people do not pursue degrees in math and science is mostly because they think these subjects are too hard. Women are more likely than men, 54 to 37 percent, to say that subject difficulty was the main reason.

Among adults, basic science knowledge varied widely by education and demographics. Americans over 65 were less likely to know nanotechnology dealt with "small things" and young people were less likely to know that natural gas is the resource extracted by "fracking."

Surprisingly, even most college graduates could not identify the gas that makes up most of the earth’s atmosphere. Just 31 percent correctly answered nitrogen, and another 31 percent incorrectly answered oxygen. Among those with a high school education or less, oxygen is the most frequent response.

The survey was conducted with Smithsonian magazine for an edition focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

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