More needs to be done to improve science teaching in the United States

  • Date

    Fri 25 May 18

Nick Allum

Black and Hispanic Americans are disadvantaged when it comes to science literacy, according to new research.

In the first detailed study to look at disparities in science knowledge between adults from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, Professor Nick Allum, from the Department of Sociology, and his fellow researchers found black and Hispanic Americans were less able to answer questions about scientific facts and processes compared to white Americans.

The study, published in Science, looked at potential reasons behind the disparity, including differences in basic literacy skills, attitudes to science (some minority groups expressed less trust and confidence in science) and demographic factors such as education, gender, where people live and religion.

There have been lots of studies which have shown racial inequalities in children when it comes to scientific knowledge, but this study set out to investigate whether the same was true for adults and if so, try to examine why this might be the case.

Professor Allum said: “The disparity in scientific knowledge we found among adults is worrying given the importance of science literacy to securing and sustaining many jobs, to understanding key health concepts to enhance quality of life and to increasing public engagement in making decisions which affect the whole of society.

“When we compared white Americans with black and Hispanic respondents who hold similar attitudes towards science and have the same degree of confidence in its institutions, we still find persistent disparities in science literacy.”

After adjusting for all of these factors, a persistent science literacy gap remains, which the authors of the study think could be related to the difference in the quality of education experienced, day to day and year after year,  by underserved groups.

Professor Allum added: “Our findings suggest the quantity and quality of science education needs to be looked at and we may also need training and public awareness campaigns to help scientists, teachers and employers to be more sensitive to the subtle manifestations of bias. “Whatever the remedy, ignoring science literacy disparities does not serve science or society well.”

Co-authors for the paper were: Dr John Besley from Michigan State University; Professor Louis Gomez from the University of California, Los Angeles and Professor Ian Brunton-Smith from the University of Surrey.