A new study led by researchers new and old from Michigan State University has found that college students in the United States do not understand the basic science of the carbon cycle, amongst other basic scientific issues such as the conservation of matter.
“Improving students’ understanding of these biological principles could make them better prepared to deal with important environmental issues such as global climate change,” said Charles “Andy” Anderson, MSU professor of teacher education and co-investigator on the project.
The researchers interacted with over 500 students at 13 different colleges within the United States in a variety of courses ranging from introductory biology to advanced ecology. They found, disturbingly, that their education had left them far short of where the researchers believed they should be.
Most students interviewed did not understand the processes that transform carbon, failing to show they understood the principle of conservation of matter, which holds that when something changes either physically or chemically the amount of matter that is left at the end of the process must be equal to the amount at the beginning of the process.
For example, students could not explain weight loss, often resorting to metaphors such as the fat “melted away” or “burned off”.
Furthermore, a large majority of the students incorrectly believed that plants draw their mass and nutrients from the soil, rather than from the air. “When you see a tree growing,” Anderson said, “it’s a lot easier to believe that tree is somehow coming out of the soil rather than the scientific reality that it’s coming out of the air.”
The researchers know that the road will be difficult if textbooks at the high-school and college levels aren’t fixed; making an attempt to explain the basics better. This is an especially worrisome issue considering that all those currently working their way through high-school and college degrees will be dealing with environmental issues in their everyday lives, whether directly as part of their career or indirectly simply by being a human being in the 21st century.
“One of the things I’m interested in,” he said, “is students’ understanding of environmental problems. And probably the most important environmental problem is global climate change. And that’s attributable to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And understanding where that carbon dioxide is coming from and what you can do about it fundamentally involves understanding the scientific carbon cycle.”