Don't know much about science

April 25, 2013
The public thinks American high school students are dumber about science than they really are.

Only about half the U.S. public knows what fracking is used for, and another half think lasers work by focusing sound waves. These are among the results of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center that aimed to gauge the public's knowledge of science and technology.

The quiz was part of a nationwide survey conducted in March  among about 1,000 adults, which also asked about opinions and perceptions of science and math in education. Pew conducted the survey with Smithsonian Magazine for a coming issue on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

Another interesting result: The public thinks American high school students are dumber about science than they really are. Pew says 44% believe 15-year-olds in other developed nations outrank U.S. students in knowledge of science. In fact, an international student assessment ranks U.S. 15-year-olds  in the middle ranks of developed nations in science knowledge. And almost half of Americans (46%) think young people avoid degrees in math and science because the subjects are too hard. A minority think kids avoid STEM careers because the subjects are boring, and about half the women polled think kids avoid STEM vocations because the subjects are too difficult.

Interestingly, retired baby boomers didn't fare well in answering Pew's science questions.  Just 37% of people 65 and older know that nanotechnology deals with small things. And just 27% correctly answered a question about how lasers work, compared with about half in older age groups.

The survey also asked people what one subject K-12 schools should emphasize more. The most popular choice (30% of respondents) was math; 19% say English, grammar or writing, while 11% say science. Overall, Pew says, 45% mention some aspect of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

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