Both RPM and Chad beat me to posting this survey [edited to add: and Janet too! Freakin’ quick triggers…] which I’ve had in my drafts box for almost 2 weeks now. So, before absolutely everyone else beats me to it, I thought I’d pose the questions to y’all, and see how you would answer the question, “What is one science question every high school graduate should be able to answer?”
Here were the questions offered by the experts:
1. What percentage of the earth is covered by water?
2. What sorts of signals does the brain use to communicate sensations, thoughts and actions?
3. Did dinosaurs and humans ever exist at the same time?
4. What is Darwin’s theory of the origin of species?
5. Why does a year consist of 365 days, and a day of 24 hours?
6. Why is the sky blue?
7. What causes a rainbow?
8. What is it that makes diseases caused by viruses and bacteria hard to treat?
9. How old are the oldest fossils on earth?
10. Why do we put salt on sidewalks when it snows?
Extra credit: What makes the seasons change?
As others have pointed out, several of these seem pretty dang trivial. I mean, the percentage of earth that’s covered by water? Is an approximation good enough, or do we need to cite the 71% they say is the correct answer? Similarly for question #9 about the oldest fossils–I’d settle for the average Joe suggesting “a billion years old” or “a couple billion years;” at least it shows they know we have fossils that were formed, in geologic time, not all that long after the formation of the earth. And honestly, I think their answer to #8 really sucks.
I understand the impetus for stories and surveys like this–“ooh, look at all the hard stuff we expect our kids to know and be tested on, but we adults can’t answer anymore!” Or, just to show that as a population, indeed, we suck at knowing scientific facts. And you’ll get no disagreement from me on that point–but is knowing the “facts” the most important part? I don’t think so.
For me, it’s kind of like that old “give a man a fish” proverb. Give someone a limited set of facts, they may “get” the problem they’re working on–but that may not teach them about anything beyond that little knowledge box. Teach them how to use the tools to solve their problem (or at least, how scientists go about finding things out), and you’ve given them a lifetime of fish, to mix a metaphor or three.
Still, that requires providing a decent amount of base knowledge, and building understanding on top of “facts” like the ones mentioned on the list. So–what would y’all recommend as the bare minimum–the science question every high school grad should be able to answer? And how do you get there, especially if it’s something that doesn’t have a rigorous, concrete answer (such as RPM’s questions of “what is a theory? what is a hypothesis?” etc.)