In contrast with statements by institutions and science organizations about why science should be studied, nonscience majors at two- and four-year institutions said they were enrolled in a science course because it was required rather than because it would help them get the job they desired or would enrich them personally.
Each semester, tens of thousands of college students who are not pursuing science majors or careers enroll in introductory science courses as part of their general studies. Why do students take those courses? Are students hoping to achieve the same goals that postsecondary institutions and national science organizations have for these courses, or do they have their own agendas? We have reviewed recent pronouncements about why science should be taught at the collegiate level and surveyed nonscience majors in two- and four-year colleges about why they are taking general studies science courses.
Rationale for Science Courses
Four-year institutions and community colleges, national scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Science, and individual scientists and educational theorists expect students to gain from their collegiate general studies science courses a common set of outcomes, including:
- an understanding of how scientists acquire knowledge about the natural world and an ability and disposition to use these ways of knowing to address problems,
- appreciation of the natural world for the pure pleasure of understanding, and
- the ability to apply basic scientific principles to solving life’s daily problems.
Science as a way of knowing. Scientific organizations and postsecondary institutions generally agree that college students should gain an understanding of and the ability to apply scientific ways of knowing; and they should acquire a disposition to use those techniques (AAAS 1990; Rutherford and Ahlgren 1990; Siebert and McIntosh 2001). Bruce Alberts (1997), then-president of the National Research Council, wrote that it would be fine for Americans to understand basic concepts such as plate tectonics but that it was much more important that citizens understand the nature of science and how its core values, such as honesty and respect for the ideas of others, underlie human progress. Across the country, goal statements of two-year colleges (Kennedy-King College 2004), four-year institutions (USC 1993), and state systems (Utah Regents 1999) echo this emphasis on the acquisition of and disposition to use skills of scientific inquiry.
Appreciation of the natural world. The AAAS Project on Liberal Education and the Sciences stated that “the experience of learning science as a liberal art must be extended to all young people so they can discover the sheer pleasure and intellectual satisfaction of understanding the natural world” (1990, xi). At nearly the same time, the AAAS Project 2061 (Rutherford and Ahlgren 1990) said that all adults should acquire scientific literacy, which includes being familiar with the universe, respecting its unity, and understanding key concepts across the broad spectrum of science and technology.
Subsequently, the book College Pathways to the National Science Education Standards stated that students should acquire an understanding of science’s big ideas, such as the pervasive interrelationship of form and function in all of nature (Siebert and McIntosh 2001). National standards do not emphasize learning the ionic states of iron or the various stages of photosynthesis but rather fundamental ideas—such as that the world is constantly changing but that an underlying equilibrium maintains a balance in nature—that help people understand and appreciate the natural world regardless of whether there is an immediately anticipated practical application of that knowledge.
Applying science to daily life. Whereas we believe that some things should be learned for the sheer joy of being able to view the world through the lens of these important ideas, Americans also have deep pragmatic roots that extend back beyond the country’s founding. For example, Benjamin Franklin asserted that schools should teach that which is most practical (Meyer 1965). In the early twentieth century through books such as Democracy and Education (1916), John Dewey led an American progressive education movement that sought practical outcomes for students from their schooling. In the 1970s, the Career Education Movement played a central role in education (Herschbach 2001); and since 2001, the Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) project has designed courses to apply science to the solution of significant social problems (AACU 2004). The over-two-centuries-old central message of this approach to science teaching is that science courses should be taught in such a way that students clearly see connections between the science they are learning and immediate applications in their daily lives as workers, citizens, and parents.
Studying the Students
To study whether postsecondary nonscience majors say they are taking introductory level science courses for the same reasons that educators have stated should be the outcome of science study, we asked focus groups of nonscience majors enrolled in collegiate science courses why they were studying science. Based on those conversations and goals stated by AAAS and others, we identified 10 reasons and grouped them in three categories (Figure 1).
|Figure 1. Reasons nonscience students gave for studying science in college.
1. Complete a general studies requirement.
2. Fulfill a requirement for my major.
3. Be able to transfer to another college.
1. Be hired for the kind of job I want after college.
2. Perform well in the kind of job I want after college.
3. Get ahead in the kind of job I want after college.
1. Help me lead a better personal life.
2. Be a better citizen.
3. Better understand the natural world.
4. Satisfy my curiosity about the natural world.
We constructed a survey by making 45 pairwise comparisons of the 10 reasons ( see Editor’s Note at the end of this article). Students were asked whether one or the other reason was definitely or slightly more important for their taking the science course (Figure 2). Initially, the 45 pairs were randomly listed; but when the same reason appeared in two consecutive pairs, one of the pairs was moved as short a distance as possible so the same reason would not appear in two successive items. Finally, the reasons within each pair were arranged so that each reason appeared on the left or right side four or five times.
For each item, we computed a score from four to one, reading left to right, for the left-hand reason; and we computed a score from four to one, reading right to left, for the right-hand reason. For example, if a student rated X as being definitely more important than Y for taking a science course, then the left-hand reason (X) received four points and the right-hand reason (Y) received one point. If Y was judged by the student to be slightly more important than X, then the left-hand reason (X) received two points and the right-hand reason (Y) received three points. Thus, for each item, the sum of the X and Y scores was always five. These scores were totaled for each reason; because each reason appeared in nine items, the reason scores could range from 9 to 36 with a median of 22.5.
We administered this survey in the first class session of the spring semester to 214 students at the Community College of Indiana and 334 students at Ball State University (both in Muncie, Indiana, a city of approximately 70,000 people). The two- and four-year institutions enroll approximately 3,000 and 18,000 students, respectively, from their nearby service areas, although the four-year institution serves a somewhat broader geographic region. The two-year institution awards the associate’s degree; but the four-year institution awards the associate’s through the doctoral degree, although its emphasis is on the bachelor’s degree.
The students surveyed were enrolled in either a physics (N = 158) or biology (N = 390) course. Caucasians represented 86% and 87%, respectively, of surveyed students from the two- and four-year institutions. The proportion of females and males in the sample were nearly identical at the four-year institution (50.5% female; 49.5% male); but more females (59.1%) than males (40.9%) were enrolled in these courses at the two-year institution. Not surprisingly, a larger proportion of the four-year (87.1%) than two-year (57.0%) students expected their highest degree would be at the bachelor’s or higher level. As compared to the four-year college students, a larger proportion of two-year students aspired to careers in health or business. On the other hand, a larger proportion of four-year students were aiming toward careers in communications, teaching, or law enforcement.
More than 90% of the students in both types of institutions had worked for pay; but many more of the two-year students had worked full-time, whereas the four-year students tended to have only worked part-time (Figure 3). The two-year students reported they were working significantly more hours per week (21.0) than the four-year students (7.1) while attending college (separate variance t = 11.05, df = 290.24, P < .001).
Approximately two-thirds (63.7%) of the four-year college students were providing none or less than half of their financial support to attend college; but only approximately a third (36.9%) of the two-year college students were providing that same level of support. Just under a third (29.2%) of the two-year students were totally self-supporting (Figure 4).
The four-year students tended to have been more “traditional” in terms of when they had begun college and in their attendance once having started college. Nearly all (91.8%) of the four-year students, but only half (51.8%) of the two-year students, had gone directly from high school or its equivalency to college. The other half of the two-year students had had a delay of between six months and more than 20 years between high school and college. Among four-year college students, 90.8% reported that they had gone straight through college without a stop to this point; but only 66.2% of the two-year students indicated the same pattern.
Most of the students at both institutions had previously studied biology in high school, and the majority had studied high school geology, chemistry, and/or physics. Similar proportions of students at the two institutions had studied biology and physics in high school; but in high school more of the two-year students had studied geology, whereas more of the four-year students had studied chemistry (Figure 5). There was no significant difference in the number of hours of collegiate science the two groups had completed (5.6 and 4.2 semester credits respectively for the two- and four-year students; t = 1.48, df = 523, P =. 14).
The reasons students gave for studying science fell into three categories (Table 1). Those items that are not significantly different are connected by double-pointed arrows. For example, there was no significant difference among all students between the scores for the top two reasons for taking the science courses. However, the second reason was significantly more important than the third reason for taking the science courses, as indicated by the lack of the double-pointed arrow between these two reasons. Because of that break between the second and third reason, we grouped the first two reasons together in one category and reasons three, four, and five into a second category.
The students’ prime reasons for taking science courses for nonmajors were to complete requirements for either their major or general studies. The next grouping of three reasons deals with getting, doing well on, and advancing in a job; but this cluster of reasons was significantly less important to these students than taking the courses because of academic requirements (i.e., general studies or major requirements).
The lowest grouping of five reasons includes more esoteric reasons for taking the nonmajors science courses (e.g., the courses would help students understand the world and would apply to their personal lives). However, another kind of reason, dealing with transfer requirements, appeared in the midst of this grouping overall; but the two-year students ranked this reason as their third-most important reason for taking a science course, whereas the four-year students ranked this reason last.
With some exceptions, the reasons students gave for enrolling in nonmajors science courses were generally the same for females and males in biology and physics courses in both types of institutions (Table 2). However, regardless of their sex or institution, as compared to those taking biology, students taking physics rated job reasons as significantly more important for their enrollment; physics students took a more vocational posture for enrolling in that science class.
Although the results were not consistent, it would appear that students at the four-year institution were more likely than two-year college students to take a nonmajors science course for personal, nonvocational reasons. As compared to two-year students, the four-year students were more likely to say that they were taking the science course to better understand the natural world or satisfy their curiosity about the natural world.
Again without consistency, males appeared to be more likely than females to take a nonmajors science course to achieve a better life or satisfy their curiosity about the natural world. Finally, it was clear that the two-year students were more likely than four-year students to be taking nonmajors science courses to be able to transfer to another college.
Discussion and Implications
Just as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers expressed conflict as they sang “you like potato; I like potahto; you like tomato; I like tomahto” in Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off (Gershwin and Gershwin 1937), organizations that provide a rationale for the study of science express course goals that conflict with students’ reasons for taking the courses. For example, the National Academy of Science as well as college catalogs express the importance of science study so that students can better understand and appreciate the natural world. However, college students beginning to study a science course for nonmajors indicated they were taking the course to fulfill a general studies requirement (mean = 26.71) rather than to understand the natural world (mean = 21.20). Even taking the course to meet general studies requirements was thought by these students to be more important a reason for taking the course than getting a job (mean = 23.64).
Students’ responses indicated that they were taking the course because they were required to do so rather than because the course would help them in the workforce or their personal lives. These results held true for both four-year students and two-year students (who were more experienced in the workforce, had to financially support themselves to a greater extent, and more often were majoring in fields directly tied to the workforce—in business and health science careers such as nursing).
Although they were more likely to enroll in nonmajors science courses for pragmatic reasons (i.e., to meet a requirement), four-year students were more likely to enroll in nonmajors science courses to learn about the natural world or to satisfy their curiosity. Moreover, males were more likely than females to be enrolled for personal reasons. It would seem that science faculty have to work especially diligently to help students see the personal benefits of science study, but they may have an easier time making the case at a four-year rather than a two-year institution and with males rather than females.
In a parallel finding, physics students were more likely than biology students to be taking these science courses to be hired, perform well, and be advanced in their jobs. We thought that this difference might be due to the students’ sex or institution, but neither of the relevant interactions was significant, so it seems that factors other than type of institution or sex were associated with this difference. Perhaps physics faculty at both types of institutions can take advantage of this heightened vocational interest by emphasizing how physics is used in the workplace.
These surveys were administered on the first day of class, before any course experience had had a chance to affect students’ opinion about how the course might help them. Perhaps the faculty teaching these courses subsequently could persuade students, through direct argumentation or vicariously by example, that the course would pay off for students on the job or in the home or community. However, faculty must be aware that whether they are teaching in two- or four-year institutions, students in science courses for nonmajors enter their courses because they feel they have to, not because they anticipate a practical outcome or a better understanding of the natural world.
Walter S. Smith (e-mail: email@example.com) is a professor in the Department of Biology at Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306; Suzanne M. Gould (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor in the Life Sciences Department at the Community College of Indiana, 4301 South Cowan Road, Muncie, IN 47302; and James A. Jones (e-mail: email@example.com) is the assistant director of University Computing Services at Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306.
The web figures cited in this article can be obtained by e-mailing NSTA staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This study was funded by a grant from the Office of Academic Research and Sponsored Programs of Ball State University. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the granting agency.
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