Science Literacy for All Americans: Is It Possible?

Before the next visit of Halley's Comet, "Project 2061," a new program sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, plans to increase the science literacy of all Americans.

Raul Alvarado, Jr.
Chairman of the SHPE Foundation

For the past few years I have been privileged to be a member of the National Council for Science and Technology Education, a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The advisory board is comprised of a group of dedicated educators who firmly believe that a high degree of science literacy can be achieved by all American students by the time they emerge from high school. It is a long-term reform initiative to transform the nation's school system for the 21st century so that all children will have the educational infrastructure in place to achieve science literacy.

In 1985 AAAS, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation launched a project that promised to be radical, ambitious, comprehensive and long-term -- in other words, risky and expensive.

'Systemic Reform'

Today it is referred as "systemic reform." Under the direction of Dr. F. James Rutherford, Project 2061 Director, AAAS launched this long-term effort to reform science, mathematics and technology education for the 21st century. In 1985 Halley's Comet was approaching the sun, prompting the new project's originators to consider all of the scientific and technological changes that a child entering school in 1985 would witness before the return of the Comet in 2061. With that philosophy, the program was aptly named "Project 2061." In view of the numerous local, state, and national obstacles and turf infringements, many wondered whether it would take that long to achieve the goals of the program.

Bad-News Trends

By the mid-1980s, a number of reports had taken a critical look at trends in public education. The news was not good. One of the first and most compelling of these reports was A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, released in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk warned of a national education crisis and urged reform of the entire system. Dozens of reports over the next few years supported the commission's conclusions, citing American students' low test scores and poor showing in international studies of student achievement. The 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that average science proficiency among students was, despite modest increases in the 1980s, still below 1970 levels.

Decline as a Leader

Other reports on education also alluded to the nation's decline as an economic and technological world leader, implicitly linking this decline to the failures of the education system. This climate inspired AAAS to place science literacy at the top of its priority list and instituted a series of program to help the nation's schools produce science-literate graduates. They also began to explore the possibilities for a large-scale project that would bring lasting reform to science education. In 1985, AAAS acquired the resources to launch Project 2061.

This year, 1996, the kindergartners who started school in 1985 are now juniors in high school.

Broad Reform Approach

Project 2061's approach to reform was viewed at the time as exceptionally broad, and took into account all students, all grades and all aspects of the K-12 education system. It focused on science literacy, rather than the more narrowly defined "science disciplines." In addition to science, mathematics, natural and social sciences, and technology were also focus subjects. From the start, Project 2061 emphasized the importance of science itself as one of the great human adventures. Its work is based on the premise that only those who are science-literate can share in the excitement of finding out who we are, where we are, how we relate to all living things and to our natural surroundings.

Unfortunately, most Americans are not science- mathematics- or technologically literate. America has evolved into a highly scientific and technological society, yet, as I stated before, most Americans remain scientifically and technologically ignorant. Project 2061's first major report, Science for All Americans, attributed this failure to the numerous problems that plague the educational system even today.

Science Worth Learning

The chief intent of Science for All Americans was to provide a fresh, critical look at what were the most important subjects of science worth learning -- the first such comprehensive effort in decades. It represented almost four years of work by Project 2061 staff and its advisory board, and two years of work by five panels of scientific experts in broadly defined fields such as biological and health sciences, social and behavioral sciences, physical and information sciences, engineering, mathematics and technology. The prevailing question was, "What should all high school graduates know, and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology?"

Science for All Americans, along with the five panel reports, was released in February 1989. It helped establish science literacy as an important national goal for all students, and served to focus the nation's
attention on ideas that have become central to science education reform.

Six Main Goals

The reform centered around six principle goals:

  • The reform must be comprehensive, involving all children, all grades, all subjects, but most of all, be long-term.
  • Curriculum reform should be shaped by a vision of the lasting knowledge and skills students need to acquire by the time they become adults.
  • The common core of learning in science, mathematics and technology should center around science literacy, to include connections among the natural and social sciences.
  • Schools should not try to teach more, but less, so that what is taught can be learned well.
  • Promoting equity in science education is a priority, and all students should be served equally well without regard for race, ethnicity, culture, gender, economic circumstances, physical limitations and location. All these conditions must be taken into account when designing and implementing an effective curriculum -- not as an excuse for short-changing students.
  • A common set of learning goals need not dictate uniform curricula, teaching methods, or materials -- variety is important.

These goals do not describe how curricula and instruction should be organized, but rather the knowledge and skills that science-literate adults should have at their command.

Teachers Helped

By 1992, more than 10,000 copies of Science for All Americans were in circulation. Project 2061 now turned its attention to helping teachers in the development of curriculum-design tools that would be credible and useful to other teachers.

To reflect the geographical and demographic differences of the nation's school districts, Project 2061 established six pilot school-district teams. So that they could plan for 13 years of schooling in science, mathematics and technology, each team included five elementary, five middle school (junior high), 10 high-school teachers, one principal from each level and two curriculum specialists.

The teams were encouraged to be as imaginative as possible and not to limit their vision on what a K-12 curriculum should look like. The teams began working together to create a common set of learning goals, or benchmarks, for various grade levels. Out of this effort came the 1993 publication, Benchmarks for Science Literacy.

Ongoing Projects

The San Diego, California, center is helping to guide restructuring measures by disseminating principles, strategies and tools through district-wide professional development programs. The center is also preparing curriculum units to supplement the district's recently adopted curriculum materials for grades 7-9.

The San Francisco, California, center is assisting teachers to develop and implement challenge-based learning experiences, multi-faceted tasks that engage students in investigating and responding to environmental and social issues when making decisions and solving problems.

The San Antonio, Texas, center is developing strong linkages with other reform initiatives in the district and is drafting a long-term Project 2061 professional development program for teachers.

The Wisconsin center has expanded to become the first state-wide team and is busy developing a variety of professional-development programs focused on Project 2061's principles, strategies and tools.

Benchmarks for Science

Teams from Elbert and Green Counties in Georgia are defining a professional-development plan that will help them focus on using Project 2061's tools to analyze curriculum materials for their match to the benchmarks. In the east, the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania center, working with university pre-service programs and K-12 school clusters, strives to enhance teacher-education opportunities and is also engaged in the analysis and design of curriculum.

Over the years the Centers' work has created a core group of school-based educators who have developed a richer understanding of science, mathematics, and technology with a broad educational perspective. Many of the Center members now lead Project 2061 workshops around the country. Center members, with their talent and unique experiences, are also in demand as speakers at local and national education events. Many serve on boards and advisory councils for other reform initiatives and work with their state education agencies to shape the development of curriculum framework around Benchmarks for Science Literacy, which was published in 1993.

Wide Acceptance

Building on the work of the teams and on education research about student learning, Benchmarks translates the adult goals for science literacy presented in Science for All Americans into learning goals, or benchmarks, for what student should know and understand by the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12. The response to Benchmarks by educators, scientists and the general public was overwhelmingly positive. The first printing of 30,000 books sold out in just a few months, and today more than 70,000 copies are in circulation.

With a growing national consensus on the learning goals of science education, Project 2061 turned its attention to helping educators implement reforms at many levels. Project 2061 receives numerous requests from educators for assistance in identifying curriculum resources that are consistent with Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy.

Two-Part Tool

The educators' requests prompted Project 2061 to develop a two-part tool, Resources for Science Literacy: Professional Development and Resources for Science Literacy: Curriculum Materials, which help educators improve their understanding of science literacy and their ability to locate and analyze curriculum materials suitable for their students.

The Professional Development tool will be released in Spring 1996, while "Curriculum Materials" is expected to be released later this year during the winter.

When Project 2061 was launched, it did not have to impress upon the public the importance of science literacy. A strong case had already been made for science literacy in reports and speeches by prominent educators, observant economists, entrepreneurs, concerned scientists, and engineers.

Useful Literacy

Instead, Project 2061's challenge was to characterize science literacy in a way useful to educators, and then to help them make science literacy goals the foundation of reform. Much has been accomplished over the past decade, and much more remains to be done. Significant, lasting reform will require more resources, both financial and human, additional assessments, and above all, more patience. However, the cost for not making such investments will be much greater. As Science for All Americans reminded reformers in 1989, the wisdom with which people use science and technology will, to a large extent, determine the fate of individual human beings, the nation, and the world.

To obtain more information on Project 2061, or obtain copies of the publications discussed, contact Ms. Mary Koppal, Communications Manager, Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. To expedite communication, Ms. Koppal can be reached at 202/326-6666, or via E-Mail:

Alvarado, R. 1994. Science Literacy for All Americans: Is It Possible?