UA students can make it to graduation with large gaps in their scientific knowledge and without a clear idea of how to apply the subject outside of the classroom.
It's a problem, say some educators in the University of Arizona department of astronomy.
Despite a national focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, students are about as scientifically literate as they were 20 years ago, according to a study led by Chris Impey, deputy department head of astronomy.
Impey began measuring the scientific literacy of students in some general education astronomy courses in 1988. He tests familiarity with scientific terminology and concepts, an understanding of how science works and the ability to apply this knowledge to daily life.
At the beginning of the semester, students receive a survey with questions such as whether antibiotics kill both viruses and bacteria and whether the oxygen humans breathe comes from plants. These questions align with those used by the National Science Foundation in a similar survey administered to the general public over the phone.
The other part of Impey's survey asks questions about beliefs in pseudoscience such as astrology and lucky numbers as well as attitudes about the importance of science to society.
Impey collects demographic data including gender, UA class standing, major and the number of UA science courses a student has taken. He administers the survey to about 500 students each semester and has more than 12,000 responses so far.
An analysis of the data from 1988 to 2008 found UA freshmen perform slightly better than the NSF results for the general public - a random sampling of Americans over the age of 18 - on the knowledge portion of the assessment, said a paper by Impey and his colleagues in the Journal of College Science Teaching.
Students who have taken two or three of the three general education science courses required by the UA for non-science students perform 10 to 15 percent better than freshmen.
"It's sort of a discouragingly small gain," Impey said.
Belief in pseudoscience is high. About 40 percent of all respondents to the survey said some people have psychic powers while about 25 percent believe in lucky numbers.
These results are disconcerting, Impey said. Undergraduate courses may be the last formal exposure people have to scientific topics before becoming citizens who make decisions and vote on policies that affect the field.
The results have remained consistent throughout the past 20 years.
"To me, that says the pedagogy and nature of courses hasn't changed in that time," Impey said.
The difference in performance between college freshmen and college seniors cannot be directly attributed to UA courses, said Sanlyn Buxner, a research associate in the College of Education who has been analyzing results of Impey's study. Students might do better by their senior year because of things they've read, heard from friends or researched on their own.
Students may also have deeper scientific knowledge on subjects not questioned in the survey, Bux- ner said. Students can choose from a wide range of subjects for the science general education requirement.
It's this "Chinese takeout menu" approach to science education that may inhibit science literacy, Impey said. Students can choose courses that may not relate to or build on each other.
Some astronomy professors advocate for general education courses that give students a deep understanding of one subject and the ability to analyze and discuss science in general.
Ed Prather, an associate professor of astronomy and director of the Center for Astronomy Education, teaches an introductory astronomy course to 500 to 900 students each semester. He teaches students about the planets, cosmology and light but also tries to improve their general scientific literacy.
He periodically asks his students to write about the greatest discovery, the greatest advancement in health and medicine and a technological advancement that improved the quality of life within a given time period. The assignment can help students draw the connections between science and society.
"The discipline isn't memorizing facts," Prather said.
In 2011, Prather and his team gave the Thinking About Science Survey Instrument to his class at the beginning and end of the semester. The survey measures beliefs in the role of science in society. At the end of the semester, students' responses generally showed more positive views of this role, said a paper by Prather and colleagues published in Astronomy Education Review this year.
Prather and his team lead workshops at the UA and around the country on how to teach more effectively. He is also assisting administrators with proposals to reform general education courses.
The College of Education has submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to create more effective science courses for pre-education students, Buxner said.
Making changes can be difficult, Prather said, but preparing students to be citizens informed on and engaged in science is a crucial investment.
"Science is what brought us out of the Dark Ages," he said, "and it will continue to do so."
Brenna Goth is a NASA Space Grant intern. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org