Alarming study shows science textbooks omitting major reality

1 May 2018

Image: connel/Shutterstock

A recent study into how many introductory science textbooks are discussing climate change has returned some alarming results.

Most of the world’s nations have agreed to drastically cut their carbon emissions in the face of potentially irreversible climate change, but it seems the producers of scientific textbooks have failed to address the scale of what is at stake.

According to a new study led by Arizona State University graduate Rachel Yoho, the vast majority of the leading introductory science textbooks she analysed did not mention climate change.

Future Human

In her paper published to Environmental Communication, Yoho and her co-author, Bruce Rittmann, examined more than 15,000 combined pages from current editions of 16 of the leading physics, biology and chemistry US undergraduate textbooks published between 2013 and 2015.

Lack of focus

Of that number, the pair found that less than 4pc were devoted to discussing climate change, global warming, related environmental issues or renewable energy applications.

The greatest amount of content dedicated to the topic, however, was usually found in the latter third of the books, giving the indication that the notion of applied science is only considered towards the end of a course of study.

Additionally, of the three disciplines, the least emphasis was placed on renewable energy technologies in biology books, but it was emphasised heavily in chemistry and physics books in relation to transportation technologies and alternate fuels.

When it comes to nuclear energy technology – including cleaner nuclear fusion technology – less than 1pc of textbooks featured it.

Major implications

In explaining the research, Yoho said that the featured textbooks were chosen because they represent the intersection of teaching to non-scientists and training for future scientists.

“The terms we included were not just limited to a keyword search, but also involved going page by page through each of the textbooks. We looked for related topics like any applications and discoveries related to fossil fuels, and renewable energy technologies like wind and solar,” she said.

“The discussion within these traditional, compartmentalised science disciplines has implications on introductory-level science education, the public perception of science and an informed citizenship.”

Discussing possible solutions, the researchers think that it’s time for introductory sciences to be more explicit about some of these pressing topics that span multiple disciplines.

“There’s so much information to cover in a short time,” Yoho said. “However, our students are facing these issues inside and outside of the classrooms. Our communities feel the impacts of our energy decisions and climate.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic