Tuesday, February 17, 2009

USA Is Ahead of the World in Science Education

This falls into the category of, "Wow, I didn't know that!"1. According to a press release from Michigan State University: College Science Requirements Keep US Ahead Of World, Researcher Argues ...
Despite frequent warnings of the inadequacy of education in the United States, citizens here are still among the world's most scientifically literate, a Michigan State University researcher said.

You can thank those general education requirements that force English majors to sit through biology classes and budding engineers to read Hemingway, Jon Miller said.


Fifty years after English novelist and physicist C.P. Snow warned of a disturbing lack of scientific literacy among the cultural elite and a parallel literary void among Britain's scientists and technologists, little has changed in most of the world, Miller argued. And that's part of what keeps the U.S. at the forefront of scientific endeavor and technological innovation.

"What makes the American market and society different," he said, "is that we have more science- and technology-receptive citizens and consumers, and as a society we're willing to spend money for basic science and have been doing that for years."

Americans as a group tend to be more open-minded about innovations such as genetically modified food, he said. Scientific reasoning also works its way into such disciplines as law, he noted, where facts are routinely marshaled to support or disprove theories.
Who would 'av thunk it? American are better at critical scientific reasoning because there are more science-receptive citizens. And it even extends to the law.

I guess that's why American courts spend so much time trying to keep superstition out of the science classroom.

1. Personally, I don't think there's all that much difference between science literacy in the USA and other Westeren industrialized nations. However, the idea that the USA is actually superior to other nations does strain belief, somewhat.


  1. This is a two edged sword. Someone who has had "bio for poets" or "astronomy for poets" sometimes leave those courses thinking that they know more than they really do.

  2. TIMSS 2007 International Science Report, listing only those above "TIMMS scale average":

    8th grade
    Singapore 567
    Chinese Taipei 561
    Massachusetts, US 556
    Japan 554
    Korea, Rep. of 553
    England 542
    Hungary 539
    Minnesota, US 539
    Czech Republic 539
    Slovenia 538
    Hong Kong SAR 530
    Russian Federation 530
    British Columbia, Canada 526
    Ontario, Canada 526
    United States 520
    Lithuania 519
    Australia 515
    Sweden 511
    Quebec, Canada 507

    4th grade
    Singapore 587
    Massachusetts, US 571
    Chinese Taipei 557
    Hong Kong SAR 554
    Minnesota, US 551
    Japan 548
    Russian Federation 546
    Latvia 542
    Alberta, Canada 543
    England 542
    United States 539
    British Columbia, Canada 537
    Hungary 536
    Ontario, Canada 536
    Italy 535
    Kazakhstan 533
    Germany 528
    Australia 527
    Slovak Republic 526
    Austria 526
    Sweden 525
    Netherlands 523
    Slovenia 518
    Denmark 517
    Quebec, Canada 517
    Czech Republic 515
    Lithuania 514
    New Zealand 504
    Scotland 500

    Now the same thing for TIMMS 2007 International Math:

    8th grade
    Chinese Taipei 598
    Korea, Rep. of 597
    Singapore 593
    Hong Kong SAR 572
    Japan 570
    Massachusetts, US 547
    Minnesota, US 532
    Quebec, Canada 528
    Hungary 517
    Ontario, Canada 517
    England 513
    Russian Federation 512
    British Columbia, Canada 509
    United States 508
    Lithuania 506
    Czech Republic 504
    Slovenia 501

    4th grade
    Hong Kong SAR 607
    Singapore 599
    Chinese Taipei 576
    Massachusetts, US 572
    Japan 568
    Minnesota, US 554
    Kazakhstan 549
    Russian Federation 544
    England 541
    Latvia 537 (2.3)
    Netherlands 535
    Lithuania 530
    United States 529
    Germany 525
    Denmark 523
    Quebec, Canada 519
    Australia 516
    Ontario, Canada 512
    Hungary 510
    Italy 507
    Alberta, Canada 505
    Austria 505
    British Columbia, Canada 505
    Sweden 503
    Slovenia 502

    So, roughly, 10th place, trailing East Asian countries, few Soviet block countries and few Western countries. MA is far ahead of the USA average.

  3. Well 10th isn't bad, there's plenty of countries. I'm not surprised Australia is where it is.

    Just becuase you think you're 'the best' doesn't mean you are, nor does it really relate to your productive output or lifestyle anyway. A stable social system, and an overly competitive culture are bigger factors.

    And anyone who has gone beyond highschool realises it is pretty worthless, and for many of those who don't, it's pretty worthless as well. Intellectual and worldly curiosity count for a lot more than rote learning or high test scores when you were 15.

  4. as a society we're willing to spend money for basic science and have been doing that for years.

    Perhaps in absolute money, due to the size of the US.

    Actually, in outlay per person or in outlay per GDP (If GDP it is, the wealth of the country), the US does not come first. Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland are the relative top, both in outlay and science performance.

  5. No surprises here. Higher education in America enjoys an excellent reputation. People all over the world want to attend American universities. They represent one of your most important national assets. Their appeal is a driving factor behind the international 'brain drain' that has worked in America's favour for decades.

    K-12 education is another story. The structure for American K-12 education exists separately from the university system and it shows. No one in the world wants to emulate that. When stories like the Dover School Board make global headlines (and they do), people around the world are bewildered and amused that things like that can happen the land of personal computers and moon landings.

  6. In reference to the lists above: there is no such country as 'Chinese Taipei.' The country under discussion is Taiwan. Its capital city is Taipei.

    'Chinese Taipei' is one of those fictitious names China uses its political clout to force on Taiwan in international arenas (Olympics, WTO, etc.) The intent is to deny Taiwan--a technologically advanced, self-governing democratic society with a standard of living far above China's--its own identity on the international stage. Why? In a nutshell: it annoys China's leaders terribly to see Taiwan minding its own business without their permission. It always has.

    For the purposes of this blog 'Chinese Taipei' is just another example of propaganda and myth taking the place of accuracy and sound education. Just call Taiwan Taiwan.

    And yes, Taiwan's public education system is one of the most distinguished in the world.

  7. It doesn't do to talk about American K-12 education and and American university education as if they were the same system. They are not. They are distinctly funded and administered. They have different standards and serve a different pool of students.

    This divide between the two does not exist in every country. But in America it does.

    The news item is about universities. (The title is misleading because it does not specify this fact.) Many of the remarks posted since are about American K-12 education.

    You can't use K-12 as a stick to beat up American universities, and you can't use American universities to give honour to a K-12 system that has little to recommend it. They are two different systems.

  8. Archer says,

    You can't use K-12 as a stick to beat up American universities, and you can't use American universities to give honour to a K-12 system that has little to recommend it. They are two different systems.

    What's your point. Are you claiming that post-secondary education in the USA is significantly better than that in India, Japan, Germany and Australia?

    Are you claiming that university students in the USA are much more scientifically literate than students in, say, Canada or Chile?