Where did you come from? Where will you go?: human evolutionary biology education and American students' academic interests and achievements, professional goals, and socioscientific decision-making
In the United States, there is a national agenda to increase the number of qualified science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) professionals and a movement to promote science literacy among the general public. This project explores the association between formal human evolutionary biology education (HEB) and high school science class enrollment, academic achievement, interest in a STEM degree program, motivation to pursue a STEM career, and socioscientific decision–making for a sample of students enrolled full–time at Arizona State University. Given a lack of a priori knowledge of these relationships, the Grounded Theory Method was used and was the foundation for a mixed–methods analysis involving qualitative and quantitative data from one–on–one interviews, focus groups, questionnaires, and an online survey. Theory development and hypothesis generation were based on data from 44 students. The survey instrument, developed to test the hypotheses, was completed by 486 undergraduates, age 18–22, who graduated from U.S. public high schools. The results showed that higher exposure to HEB was correlated with greater high school science class enrollment, particularly for advanced biological science classes, and that, for some students, HEB exposure may have influenced their enrollment, because the students found the content interesting and relevant. The results also suggested that students with higher K–12 HEB exposure felt more prepared for undergraduate science coursework. There was a positive correlation between HEB exposure and interest in a STEM degree and an indirect relationship between higher HEB exposure and motivation to pursue a STEM career. Regarding a number of socioscientific issues, including but not limited to climate change, homosexuality, and stem cell research, students' behaviors and decision–making more closely reflected a scientific viewpoint—or less–closely aligned to a religion–based perspective—when students had greater HEB exposure, but this was sometimes contingent on students' lifetime exposure to religious doctrine and acceptance of general evolution or human evolution. This study has implications for K–12 and higher education and justifies a paradigm shift in evolution education research, such that more emphasis is placed on students' interests, perceived preparation for continued learning, professional goals and potential contributions to society rather than just their knowledge and acceptance.