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When asked why we work so tirelessly on environmental issues, old fogies like me often respond that we're concerned about the world we're handing off to its youth. But what about the young people themselves?
When I first saw the report's cover, the title's "PISA 2006" jumped out at me, making me first think it was some convocation of scientists and engineers in 2006 deciding how to save that famously leaning tower. Course, I knew that couldn't be the real subject because I'd asked my researcher to send me the report because of some interesting findings on scientific achievement I'd heard about.
Turns out the full title of the report, which was released a month ago, is Green at Fifteen? How 15-Year-Olds Perform in Environmental Science and Geoscience in PISA 2006. PISA, short for the Program for International Student Assessment, is a survey conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental research and policy group of 30 countries that assesses economic and social indicators of democratic nations around the world, and develops policy recommendations based on their findings. According to the group's web site, the latest report is "[an] assessment of the science competencies of 15-year-olds … the first comprehensive internationally comparative knowledge base of what students know about the environment and environment-related issues."
The study included more than 400,000 students from 57 countries. Student proficiency and attitudes were gauged toward a wide-array of issues related to geosciences and the environment ranging from nuclear waste and energy shortage to air pollution. OECD then analyzed the findings with respect to various socio-economic and demographic factors.
The Envelope Please ... Or, Less Hollywood, Some of the Results
Basic Proficiency: 84 percent of the kids showed at least a basic level of proficiency in the environment — that's a lot better than I'd expected. The highest levels of proficiency were found in Canada, Finland, Chinese Taipei, Estonia, Hong Kong, and Liechtenstein (note which country is missing, America). As in most things educational, economically disadvantaged kids and kids in immigrant families did not do as well as the rest, on average.
High Proficiency: Highly proficient students "can handle the most complex tasks and represent a pool of young people equipped with a high level of understanding of the environment, who may make a difference in helping to address environmental issues." There's pretty good news here as well: almost 20 percent of the globe's kids scored at the highly proficient level. Students in Chinese Taipei did the best with just over one-third of students achieving high proficiency rankings. Countries that scored the next highest proficiency levels were, in order, Hong Kong, Finland, Japan, Canada, Slovenia, Korea, and Estonia — all with over 25 percent of the students achieving highest proficiency. The students from the United States did not.
U.S. Kids Leave Room for Improvement: The percentage of Americans kids who performed at the basic level or better was statistically the same as the global average (84 percent). But U.S. students did worse than the average in the high-proficiency level for the environment (17 percent versus 19 percent). They fared even worse in the geosciences, where the high-proficiency average for all nations was 14 percent compared to the U.S. average of only 11 percent.
Oh Canada: While U.S. performance indicates the strong need for an environmental studies makeover, our neighbors to the north are looking pretty pretty. Canadian students performed near the top in most categories. It will be interesting to see how this foundation in geosciences and environmental issues will influence the choices facing Canadians over the coming decades as they grapple with tough decisions on how to address climate change. Will their proficiency translate into more efficient, better climate policies?
Science Proficiency: Not surprisingly, the kids with the best grasp of science tended to achieve the highest proficiency levels. This finding illustrates a basic failing in the United States: more than 90 percent of the U.S. students surveyed indicated they were familiar with a wide range of environmental issues but their results demonstrated a below-average understanding of them.
The Optimism Conundrum: Perhaps most fascinating of all was the finding that students with the lowest environmental proficiency tended to have a more optimistic outlook "that the environment will improve in the future." The study's writers concluded that the less proficient students "may need more information about the environmental risks that lie ahead." But who knows? Maybe those environmentally challenged students know something the rest of us don't. Maybe they understand that all the work the enviro's are doing is going to make a difference and things will be just fine. But I don't think that a "don't worry, be happy" attitude is such a good idea. Scientific knowledge or lack thereof will likely determine our country's economic future. This is one more report that suggests it's time to get current with science and may I suggest a daily helping of The Green Grok....
I'm not sure whether this article is focussing on the indoctrination of our school kids (go Captain Planet!) or the fact that the US school system does poorly with even the things they want to teach - "I saport publik skoolzs"
I'm not sure whether this article is focusing on the indoctrination of our school kids (go Captain Planet!) or the fact that the US school system does poorly with even the things they want to teach - "I saport publik skoolzs"
Dear "Saport Publik Skoolz": Knowing the science of the environment like being knowledgeable about science in general is not a product of indoctrination; it is education in the process of critical thinking. I wonder if part of the problem with our primary educational systems is that so many people view teaching science as indoctrination.
Dr. Bill Chameides
Dean, Duke University
Nicholas School of the Environment
www.nicholas.duke.edu | www.TheGreenGrok.com
Just tossing grenades.
Speaking from personal experience, I recall leaving high school with the impression that things are getting worse, environmentally speaking. At the time I thought an amorphous global warming was on the horizon ready to destroy our life. Example - Rising water levels have eroded much of the Cape May beach in New Jersey (not true)
The reality is:
- Our waterways have improved (you can swim in them again)
- Our resource inventory for most minerals expands every year
- The green revolution (the real one) has provided ample food for the entire world due to fertilizers
- Our industrial processes include scrubbers to neutralize and clean most of the fines out of the exhaust AKA our air quality is improving
- And, yes, we humans have tremendously increased CO2 into our atmosphere.
So, if I were to focus on the negative (an American tradition) I would isolate the CO2 problem and blow it out of proportion. Ex. temperatures will rise 4 C and ocean levels will rise 20 feet. As an engineer, I would consider this a distinct non-zero possibility (pretty close to zero though - Waterworld was an interesting movie though).
As for teaching environmental science, I am of the opinion that most school teachers are too invested in only one side of the hypothesis and are not academic enough to point the students towards opposing points of view. As for 15 year olds understanding complex environmental issues, I'm all for it its just that they also need to be educated that there are two sides to this argument both represented by intelligent scientists as well as biased politicians.
Quid est veritas?
"But Brawndo's got what plants crave. It's got electrolites."
Ever seen the movie Idiocracy?
The article sites that those with a poorer level of knowledge regarding environmental issues also tend to have a more positive outlook on the future of the environment, and suggests that this is because they are not fully aware of the dangers that threaten the environment. I think there may well be a reversal of cause and effect here. Naturally, the more any particular culture perceives the environment to be at risk, the more push for environmental education there will be in that culture. On an individual basis as well, if an individual's perception of the environment's future is unfavorable, they will likely regard their own environmental education with greater importance and therefore retain more.
The "optimism conundrum" bears investigation. Possibly the ones who score lowest simply don't care because their interests lie in other areas. Nothing wrong with that. Or maybe they've noticed, as someone pointed out above, that environmental quality has noticeably improved in the United States over the past decades and they believe that trend will continue. Probably true, as it is true of any wealthy nation.
I think the more compelling conundrum is the widespread movement to enact increasingly and prohibitively expensive public policy measures that would produce diminishingly small gains in environmental improvements. It seems that pragmatism is rare among the more vocal "defenders" of the environment. I'm impressed with conservationists who take a more realistic (and low-key) approach, for example, to protecting wetlands, forests, and species. I'll bet not many of them would score as the "highly proficient" who "can handle the most complex tasks" relating to environmental science, yet they make a tremendous positive impact.
By the way, scoring 17% vs. 19% says almost nothing useful. I'll bet it's within the margin of error if the questions were examined. It's interesting that the country that produces more research and technological innovation than any other scores so poorly on science on the PISA survey. Perhaps that reflects the amazing diversity of job opportunities now available in the U.S.--that don't require specialized scientific education--more than it reflects a lack of scientific scholarship or interest in science.
I have to agree that a broader spectrum of scores is to be exspected in the land of opertunity.
In most European countries, competition is very tight for existing job opertunities, making in depth comprehensive education more attractive and necessary.
In a country where I have students in my classes making more money than I do per hour of teaching by welding, it is not surprising that many students go for a less educationally based life-path. If education were the only path to sucess here, those numbers would change.
Folks, Thanks for a most lively discussion and debate. Reflecting on the comments, here are a few thoughts.
1. DerivePi: Your "reality" is correct for the most part. I would invite you to reflect on why. For example, "our waterways have improved," because of the Clean Water Act passed at the urging of environmental scientists and over the objections of industries which claimed the dangers of the pollution were overblown and the remedies would be too expensive.
2. DerivePi: I would agree that part of the problem is a lack of scientific training on the part of many primary and high school teachers.
3. qlmmb2086: Given the importance of environmental policy decisions, I would think we would want all citizens to know something about the environment so that they can make informed decisions.
4. laurenra7: "Environmental quality has noticeably improved in the United States over the past decades and they believe that trend will continue." See #1 for why environmental quality has improved. And how do you propose that it will continue to without people knowledgeable about the environment?
5, laurenra7: With regard to the difference between 17 and 19: point well taken.
6. laurenra7: "The country that produces more research and technological innovation than any other." It is true that the U.S. leads the world in patent filings -- a good metric for innovation. But on a per capita basis our leadership is not so apparent. Japan and South Korea have more patents per capita; and Germany, France, and the United Kingdom are about even with the U.S. See internationaltrade.suite101.com/article.cfm/most_inventive_countries and www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/most-patent-registering-countries.html. Given the current economy and global trends, this is probably not the time to rest on our laurels.
Dr. Bill Chameides
Dean, Duke University
Nicholas School of the Environment
www.nicholas.duke.edu | www.TheGreenGrok.com
lnwolf41 I am a product of public schools from the 70's.The teaching platform of today is nothing like I had, since now we teach only what is needed to pass the test that will give the schools the most money from state and federal funds..
Also take into account how serious were the american kids who took the test. It had no impact on their grade so why bother trying to do good on it.