Lost in translation: quantifying the overlap of popular media and non-majors science course assessment vocabulary

TitleLost in translation: quantifying the overlap of popular media and non-majors science course assessment vocabulary
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsMomsen, JL, Clark SK, Doherty JH, Haudek KC, Schramm JW, Geraghty-Ward EM
Refereed DesignationRefereed
Date Published05/2012
Keywordsclimate change, news media, Scientific Literacy, text analysis, undergraduate education
AbstractEarth's climate is rapidly changing, and citizens of the 21st century will need to act based on informed decisions about climate change. A liberal education should contribute to an informed and responsible citizenry who can think independently, reason analytically, and communicate effectively. Following college graduation, typical Americans will gain most of their science information through the media. How well are students prepared to be effective, critical consumers of media-reported science? We broach this subject by comparing the climate change vocabulary of undergraduate science courses for non-science majors with multiple popular media sources. Using PASW Text Analytics for Surveys, we objectively identified key terms from both classroom and media sources, and grouped these terms into major reservoirs and fluxes of the carbon cycle. Our classroom data include exams and quizzes from biology and physical science courses taught at a large, research intensive university. Media reports were collected the week before, after, and during COP15 from daily, weekly, and monthly media sources. Of the 253 items analyzed (183 media responses, 40 assessment responses), we extracted 310 relevant terms and grouped those into 19 categories based on the carbon cycle. The most frequently used terms in assessments included CO2 and reservoirs such as the atmosphere, ocean, tree, and one flux, photosynthesis. Within the media, the most frequently used terms were socio-political in nature (e.g., country, Obama). Between the media and assessments, seven of the top 20 words overlapped and focused primarily on carbon reservoirs. Media and assessments differ substantially in the usage of terms associated with carbon fluxes. Many courses for non-science majors have a goal to improve students' abilities to apply scientifically sound reasoning and knowledge within their everyday lives. Our analysis reveals a discrepancy between the vocabulary used in media sources and in course assessments surrounding the topic of climate change. We suggest non-major science courses should do more to explicitly tie scientific processes to current political, economic, and social discussions. For many students, these courses represent the only science class they will take. The vocabulary they learn today should prepare them to make informed decisions tomorrow.
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