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A Worrying Number of Science Textbooks Are Missing an Important Topic: Climate Change

STAFF, SCIENCE AF
3 MAY 2018

Despite overwhelming and nearly universal scientific consensus, the American public remains deeply divided on the topic of global climate change.

And now, it appears that even our science textbooks are avoiding the topic.

 

When researchers examined 16 of the leading undergraduate science textbooks published between 2013 and 2015, they found something surprising.

Of the 15,000 pages examined, less than 4 percent were devoted to climate change, global warming, related environmental issues or renewable energy applications.

In addition, the research team found that biology textbooks had, on average, the most pages dedicated to climate change, but these pages still made up less than 2 percent of the whole textbook.

On the other hand, the physics textbooks had, on average, devoted less than 0.5 percent of their total pages to the topic.

Plus, even when climate change information was present, it could only be found in the final third of book, decreasing the possibility that students will even find this content.

"The relatively few pages devoted to these topics calls into question how well educational materials for introductory-level science courses provide exposure to this pressing societal issue," the study concluded.

The study chose to focus on 16 leading chemistry, biology and physics textbooks because "they represent the intersection of teaching to non-scientists and training for future scientists."

But when these textbooks do not teach climate science comprehensively, it's no wonder that much of the American public lacks even a basic understanding of climate change.

 

According to a Yale Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) survey, only 58 percent of Americans think climate change is human-caused, and 30 percent think it is mostly due to natural changes.

Furthermore, almost 90 percent of Americans do not know there is scientific consensus on climate change.

Clearly, our education system is letting us down.

"The terms we included were not just limited to a keyword search, but also involved going page by page through each of the textbooks," said PhD student and co-author Rachel Yoho.

"We looked for related topics like any applications and discoveries related to fossil fuels, and renewable energy technologies like wind and solar."

The researchers noted that climate change, global warming, fossil fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear energy are not often a focus in undergraduate science textbooks.

In biology textbooks, the least emphasis of all these topics was placed on renewable energy technologies, whereas in chemistry and physics textbooks, renewable energy technologies were emphasized heavily.

"The discussion within these traditional, compartmentalized science disciplines has implications on introductory-level science education, the public perception of science, and an informed citizenship," said co-author Bruce Rittmann.

 

With so much to cover in undergraduate science courses, obviously not every topic can be taught in full.

But when global climate change and the implementation of energy technologies are among the most pressing issues facing society, a paucity of materials on these topics presents a worrying challenge.

"There's so much information to cover in a short time. However, our students are facing these issues inside and outside of the classrooms," said Yoho.

"Our communities feel the impacts of our energy decisions and climate."

Yoho and Rittman's research calls into question the effectiveness of our current education system in an age of dangerous global warming.

The study has been published in Environmental Communication.

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