Summer 2003


Evidence That Science Literacy College Courses Have A Significant National Impact

Art Hobson

Jon Miller of Northwestern University (2) pursues a type of science education research that deserves the attention of all science educators, especially physics educators.  Trained as a political scientist, Miller brings the social science skills of survey research and quantitative analysis to the study of the public understanding of science and technology. For two decades, he has designed and conducted national studies of the public understanding of science and technology for the National Science Board, published regularly as Science and Engineering Indicators. His work in the measurement of scientific literacy and attitudes has been replicated in more than 20 countries.  He also directs Northwestern University's International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, and was vice president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences for nine years.  He has published many books and articles in the public understanding of science and technology and in the development of science and mathematics skills during secondary school and college.

Miller's research provides evidence that science literacy courses for non-science university students make a surprising difference in a nation's overall level of scientific literacy (3-8).  Using carefully developed instruments, Miller builds on two decades of national surveys in the United States and two European studies to measure civic scientific literacy in several nations.  In Miller's work, "scientific literacy" means, first, an understanding of basic scientific concepts such as the molecule, DNA, the structure of the solar system; and second, an understanding of the nature and process of scientific inquiry, including the ability to separate scientific sense from pseudoscientific nonsense.  In practical terms, scientific literacy reflects the level of skill required to read the science section of a major newspaper. 

Miller found that the percentage of American adults who were scientifically literate increased from 10% to 17% during 1990 to 1999.   Although these levels are low, surely too low for the requirements of a democratic society in today's world, they are higher than the level for European adults in 1992 (5%), for Canadian adults in 1989 (4%), and for Japanese adults in 1991 (3%) (Ref. 8, p. 2; Ref. 6, p. 98). 

In view of the weak showing of U.S. secondary school students on such comparative exams as the Third International Math and Science Study, it is surprising that U.S. adults are significantly more scientifically literate than European, Canadian, or Japanese adults.  At some point between secondary school and full adulthood, the average science literacy level of Americans seems to increase relative to other nations.  Why? 

Miller has studied the factors associated with scientific literacy in the U.S., evaluating the relative significance of the individual's age, gender, highest level of education, college science courses, minor children in the household, and use of informal science education resources.  He found that the strongest predictor of adult science literacy is college science courses, followed at a much lower significance level by informal science education, and then by highest level of education. 

In his college science course indicator, Miller divided the number of courses into three levels:  no college-level science courses, one to three courses, and four or more courses.  Those individuals falling into the second level (one to three courses) took college science courses as a part of a general education requirement rather than as part of a major degree program.  Thus, this indicator gives significant weight to science literacy courses, and the high significance of this indicator in predicting an individual's science literacy level is evidence for the importance of these courses in educating scientifically literate adults (8). 

Miller comments that "it is not well known in the scientific community that the United States is the only major nation in the world that requires general education courses for its university graduates.  University graduates in Europe or Japan can earn a degree in the humanities or social sciences without taking any science course at the university level.  ...Analysis of the data shows that this exposure to college-level science courses accounts for U.S. performance."  (Ref. 8, p. 3)

Three conclusions follow plausibly from Miller's research:  All nations, and not only the United States, need to require science literacy courses for all university students.  Second, because a 17% science literacy level is too low, and because of the evidence that college science literacy courses raise this level, U.S. colleges need to increase the quality, enrollments, and required number of their science literacy courses.  Third, because physicists are especially prone to ignore non-science students in favor of scientists and in favor of personal research interests, physics departments in particular need to increase the quality, enrollments, and required number of courses for non-scientists (9).


1.  Parts of this letter are excerpted, with permission, from a recently-published letter in Physics Education (Institute of Physics, Bristol, UK).

2.  Miller's web site is .

3.  Public Perceptions of Science and Technology: A Comparative Study of the European Union, the United States, Japan, and Canada, (BBV Foundation, Madrid. 1997), with Raphael Pardo and Fujio Niwa.

4.  The Public Understanding of Science and Technology in the United States, A Report to the National Science Foundation (Chicago Academy of Sciences, Chicago, 1995).

5.  "Civic Scientific Literacy in the United States: A Developmental Analysis from Middle-school through Adulthood," in Gräber, Wolfgang and Claus Bolte (Eds.), Scientific Literacy (Germany: Institute for Science Education, University of Kiel, Kiel, 1997) pp 121-142.

6.  "Civic Scientific Literacy and Attitude to Science and Technology," in Dierkes, Meinolf and Claudia von Grote (Eds.), Between Understanding and Trust: The Public, Science, and Technology (Harwood Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, 1999), pp 81-129, with Rafael Pardo.

7.  "The Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy," Public Understanding of Science, July 1998, pp 1-21.

8.  "Civic Scientific Literacy:  A Necessity in the 21st Century," Federation of American Scientists Public Interest Report, January 2002, pp. 1-4; available on the web at

9.  Art Hobson, "Physics Literacy, Energy, and the Environment," to be published in Physics Education; Art Hobson, "Education Must Capture Student Enthusiasm," letter to Physics Today, April 2001, p. 94; Art Hobson, "Academic Bias Toward Research Cripples American Undergraduate Education," letter to J. of College Sci. Teach., September 1998, p. 7; Art Hobson, "Science Literacy and Departmental Priorities," letter to Am. J. Phys., March 1999, p. 177; Art Hobson, "Will Non-Scientists Choose Physics?" Phys. Teach., October 1995, pp. 464-465.

Art Hobson is Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701