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Thu November 10, 2011
Dr. Andy Anderson, Michigan State University - Understanding the Carbon Cycle
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Andy Anderson of Michigan State University explores the root causes of why most students fail to achieve a sufficient level of scientific literacy.
Charles (Andy) Anderson is Associate Director of the Division of Science and Mathematics Education and a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University. His research centers on issues concerning science education in the classroom setting, and more specifically, how students' prior knowledge, language, and social relationships affect their engagement in science learning and the development of scientific literacy. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. About Dr. Anderson
Dr. Andy Anderson - Understanding the Carbon Cycle
One might expect, in this era of environmental stewardship and sustainability, that American college students would have a solid grasp of the very carbon cycle that defines life. But according to our research, this is not necessarily the case.
In a recent study, we assessed the fundamental science knowledge of more than 500 students at 13 U.S. colleges, in courses ranging from introductory biology to advanced ecology. What we found is that most students do not truly understand the processes that transform carbon. They failed to apply principles such as the conservation of matter, which holds that when something changes chemically or physically, the amount of matter at the end of the process needs to equal the amount at the beginning. (Matter doesn't magically appear or disappear, of course.)
In one example, most students incorrectly believe plants obtain their mass from the soil rather than primarily from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It's easier for them to believe the fallacy that trees are somehow growing out of the soil, rather than the scientific reality that they're growing out of the air.
Based on our research and past classroom teaching experience, we believe that biology textbooks and high-school and college science instructors need to do a better job of teaching these fundamentals - particularly how matter transforms from gaseous to solid states and vice-versa. Improving students' understanding of these biological principles could make them better prepared to deal with important environmental issues such as global climate change. But it won't be easy, for students' beliefs are deeply engrained in common misconceptions. We believe that instructors should help students understand that the use of such "everyday, informal reasoning" runs counter to true scientific literacy.
Ultimately, the implications are great for a generation of citizens who will grapple with complicated environmental issues such as clean energy and carbon sequestration.