Supporting Goals-Based Learning with STEM Outreach

Sofia Kesidou, Ph.D.
Program Director
AAAS Project 2061

Mary Koppal
Communications Director
AAAS Project 2061

Originally published in the Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, Vol. 5 (2004), Issues 3 & 4, pp. 5-16.


Drawing on knowledge and experience gained through the study of K-12 science, mathematics, and technology education practices and efforts to reform them, this article suggests several ways to strengthen outreach efforts aimed at students in the elementary grades. The article begins with a description of Project 2061, an education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that promotes the goal of science literacy for all students and the importance of coherent and specific content standards to guide K-12 teaching and learning. The authors then recommend several strategies and a number of resources that can help those in the scientific and technological community to develop outreach efforts and materials that are aligned with and support the goals that today’s students and teachers are striving to achieve.

In its latest update on the state of U.S. science and engineering, the National Science Board reports that nearly all Americans agree on the importance and value of science literacy in understanding and dealing with the issues of the day (1). However, performance by the nation’s K-12 students in mathematics and science as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests continues to be disappointing (2). Without basic literacy in science, mathematics, and technology, these young people will not be prepared for tomorrow’s jobs or for making decisions about health care, national security, the environment, and a range of other issues in which science and technology play a key role. While reforms in science, mathematics, and technology education are underway to address these problems, a great deal more needs to be done throughout the education system before significant improvements in student achievement can be realized.

As an important part of the system, the scientific and technological community has a vital role to play in reaching out to education reform efforts and encouraging young people to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). One such reform effort is Project 2061, a long-term nationwide education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Project 2061 began its work in 1985, the year Halley’s Comet was last visible from Earth. Children just starting school now will see the return of the Comet in 2061—a reminder that today’s education will shape the quality of their lives as they come of age in the 21st century amid profound scientific and technological change. Project 2061 has focused its work on understanding what it takes to help all students become literate in science, mathematics, and technology and on developing tools to help all those engaged in this important endeavor.

In this article, our goal is to share with JSTEM Education readers some ideas and resources drawn from our work at Project 2061 that can help them develop outreach efforts that are more relevant, effective, and rewarding. In particular, we focus on identifying resources and strategies that can be used to enrich outreach efforts that aim to supplement or enhance STEM content for students in kindergarten through 6th grade, rather than on efforts related to STEM careers. Our recommendations below are drawn from the standards- and research-based practices that are driving reforms in today’s science and mathematics classrooms.

AAAS’s Project 2061 and Science Literacy

With its first publication Science for All Americans (3), Project 2061 called attention to the knowledge and skills that all citizens need so that they can live productive and rewarding lives in a society that is increasingly shaped by science and technology. Drawing on the work of expert panels representing the major scientific and technical disciplines, Science for All Americans describes a science literate person as one who:

  • is familiar with the natural world.
  • understands some of the key concepts and principles of science.
  • has a capacity for scientific ways of thinking.
  • is aware of some of the important ways in which mathematics, technology, and science depend upon one another.
  • knows that science, mathematics, and technology are human enterprises and what that implies about their strengths and limitations.
  • is able to use scientific knowledge and ways of thinking for personal and social purposes.

This vision of science literacy emphasizes the connections among ideas in the natural and social sciences, mathematics, and technology and avoids the artificial boundaries that separate the traditional curriculum into individual disciplines. Science for All Americans has laid the groundwork for Project 2061’s ongoing research and development efforts and for the nationwide science standards movement of the 1990s.

To help students make progress toward science literacy, Project 2061 next published Benchmarks for Science Literacy (Benchmarks), which proposes learning goals for students at the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12 (4). Developed in collaboration with teams of educators in six diverse school districts and with scientists and experts on learning and curriculum design, Benchmarks reflects the input of more than 1,300 individuals. Benchmarks provides educators with sequences of specific learning goals that they can use to design a core curriculum, guiding decisions about what content to include (or exclude), when to teach it, and why. To help educators as they rethink their curriculum, Benchmarks:

  • describes levels of understanding and ability that all students are expected to reach on the way to becoming science literate;
  • concentrates on the common core of learning that contributes to the science literacy of all students while acknowledging that most students have interests and abilities that go beyond that common core, and some have learning difficulties that must be considered;
  • avoids technical language used for its own sake, in part to reduce sheer burden, and in part to prevent vocabulary from being mistaken for understanding;
  • is informed by research on how students learn, particularly as it relates to the selection and grade placement of the learning goals;
  • encourages educators to recognize the interconnectedness of knowledge and to build these important connections into their curriculum units and materials; and
  • includes knowledge of the nature and history of science, mathematics, and technology, an understanding of common themes that cut across disciplines, and the development of scientific habits of mind as essential aspects of science literacy.

Both Science for All Americans and Benchmarks have been influential in national and state education reform efforts. The National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards, for example, acknowledges “its indebtedness to the seminal work by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061” (5). A study by SRI International found that Project 2061’s work had an impact on the day-to-day work of most state education leaders and influenced the development of nearly every state science curriculum framework or standards-type document (6). Along with Project 2061, other national organizations have developed content standards for other subject areas, including the publication in 2000 of Principles and Standards for School Mathematics produced by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (7) and Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology produced by the International Technology Education Association (8).

In its current work, Project 2061 has focused on helping educators and others make use of learning goals (a general term for benchmarks or standards that specify the content that students are to learn) in their efforts to improve curriculum materials, teacher education, assessments, and other elements of the K-12 education system. Project 2061 also works closely with the informal science education community through partnerships with science centers and museums around the country.

Of particular interest to Project 2061 has been the role of curriculum materials—including traditional textbooks, stand-alone or supplemental units, computer-based activities and programs, and so on—as tools that can support both teachers and students. To gather baseline data on the extent to which currently available science and mathematics textbooks could be useful in helping a wide range of students learn some of the key ideas recommended in national and state content standards, Project 2061 conducted evaluative studies of 44 middle and high school textbooks. The studies looked at the most widely used textbooks and at some non-traditional textbooks that were fairly new to the market. With the exception of a handful of promising mathematics textbooks, nearly all of the textbooks had many weaknesses, including a lack of coherence and focus on key learning goals, an overemphasis on trivial details and terminology at the expense of more in-depth content, failure to develop students’ thinking and reasoning skills, and inadequate support for teachers in identifying and correcting students’ misconceptions. In science not a single textbook received a satisfactory overall rating (9, 10, 11).

Drawing on the findings from these and other studies and from the available research on teaching and learning, we’ve distilled three key recommendations that we think will help the readers of JSTEM Education place their outreach efforts within the broader context of education reform in science, mathematics, and technology. At the same time, we identify some useful resources—both online and in print—that can help put these recommendations into practice. As a result, outreach efforts can be designed to engage young audiences more effectively and help them make progress toward achieving important learning goals. We’ve tried to recommend steps that will provide the most lasting benefit to developers of outreach activities and materials and to the classrooms that will be using them.

Recommendation #1: Align Your Outreach Efforts to Relevant Content Standards

By specifying what students should know and be able to do in each content area and grade level, the standards movement has been a major influence on the reform of STEM education. With the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (12), schools, teachers, and students must now meet stringent accountability measures that are tied to those standards.

In this new environment, it is more important than ever that outreach efforts be well aligned with the relevant science and mathematics learning goals. Achieving this alignment is not as easy as it might seem; many standards documents are little more than checklists of concepts and skills to be “covered.” To be meaningful, alignment needs to go beyond a key word or topic match. For this reason, Benchmarks spells out quite specifically the ideas that students are expected to know and expresses the ideas in language that is appropriate to each grade band. Although written to be as precise as possible, the learning goals in Benchmarks still need to be interpreted and clarified before they can effectively guide the design of an activity, experiment, demonstration, lesson, or unit. To help think through what this kind of alignment would look like when applied to a particular outreach activity or material (as well as to textbooks and a wide variety of other curriculum materials), here are some questions to keep in mind:

Does the activity or material address the actual substance of the learning goal or just the topic? As an example, consider the following learning goal for students in grades 3-5 that relates to understanding the nature of science and how scientists work:

Clear communication is an essential part of doing science. It enables scientists to inform others about their work, expose their ideas to criticism by other scientists, and stay informed about scientific discoveries around the world. (4)

At first glance, it might seem that any outreach activity that addresses the topic of communication by providing opportunities for students to work together or to share information would be aligned with this learning goal. Instead, the goal actually expects students to understand the essential role that clear communication plays in scientific discovery. More on-target activities might bring students together as a team to investigate a science question and then to reflect on how sharing their data and information helped their work along. To demonstrate how much clear communication contributes to their work, activities might even include deliberate blocking of communication so that students can see how their work suffers as a result.

Does the activity or material focus on the “big ideas” specified in the learning goal rather than on less important details? Consider this learning goal for students in grades 3 through 5:

The patterns of stars in the sky stay the same, although they appear to move across the sky nightly, and different stars can be seen in different seasons. (4)

Here students are expected to understand that when any group of stars is observed at different times over the course of one night or on different nights, the stars always have the same arrangement—they always have the same relative positions to one another. This arrangement is consistent night after night, year after year, and century after century even though there may be times when parts (or all) of the arrangement may not be visible. Outreach activities or materials that give students opportunities to observe that stars within a group maintain their relative positions and that groups of stars maintain their positions relative to other groups, even as they all appear to move across the sky during the night, are likely to be well aligned with this learning goal. Efforts aimed at having students know the names of constellations or how many there are would not be aligned.

Does the activity or material reflect the level of sophistication of the learning goal? Consider this learning goal for students in kindergarten through 2nd grade:

Water left in an open container disappears, but water in a closed container does not disappear. (4)

In this example, K-2 students are not expected to understand the mechanism of evaporation, including molecules, invisible vapor, or even the term “evaporation” itself; it is enough to observe what happens to the water in a sufficient variety of contexts to see the pattern described in the benchmark. Students are expected to build on their observations in grades 3-5 to understand that when liquid water disappears, it turns into a gas (vapor) in the air, and in grades 6-8 to explain evaporation in terms of invisibly small molecules. In Project 2061’s Benchmarks, decisions about the placement of learning goals at particular grade levels are based on cognitive and domain-specific research and on teachers’ experience. Useful summaries of much of this research are included in a special chapter of Benchmarks.

Recommendation #2: Pay Attention to What Students Are Thinking

Extensive research has shown that even very young children have their own ideas about almost every topic they are likely to encounter. For example, on the topic of “light,” some children may identify light only with its source or with its effects rather than thinking of light as an entity that travels in space. Rather than dismissing these as merely “erroneous” beliefs that can be easily corrected, it’s important to understand that these are powerful ways of thinking that affect the way children are likely to interpret and respond to the outreach activities or materials being planned.

By being aware of these ideas and beliefs and taking them into account in their planning, outreach developers will be able to ask better questions and to provide more convincing evidence about the validity and plausibility of a scientific explanation. For example, if students associate light only with its source or effects, they are unlikely to explain the direction and formation of shadows in terms of an obstacle blocking the passage of light but will merely notice similarity of shape between object and shadow, or say that the object hides the light. Questions such as “what is the path of light?” or “does light move?” are not likely to make sense to these students (13).

Benchmarks (4) is one of several helpful sources of information about the ideas that many students have in specific topic areas: other resources include Children’s Ideas in Science (14) and Making Sense of Secondary Science (15). Project 2061 is currently developing comprehensive summaries of findings from learning research on student thinking. They include descriptions of learners’ common ideas and likely sources of these ideas, as well as lists of questions or tasks that can be used to elicit students’ thinking and track their understanding. In some cases, the research summaries include not only descriptions of conceptual but also of relevant cultural, epistemological, or ontological prior knowledge that may influence student learning. (See Figure 1 for an example of a research summary dealing with one of the ideas that students often have related to light. Additional examples can be found on the Project 2061 Web site at

Recommendation #3: Take Advantage of Instructional Strategies That Work

Just as there are established methods for making a presentation compelling, persuasive, and memorable for professional and other adult audiences, so too are there strategies—supported by research—for engaging young students with ideas and helping them to understand and retain the most important concepts. In conducting our textbook evaluation studies (4), we developed a set of criteria for judging the quality of each textbook’s instructional design. Derived from research on effective teaching and learning, these criteria can also provide some insights on the kinds of activities and materials being developing for outreach in elementary level classrooms. Although there are more than 20 criteria (Figure 2) that were applied to the textbooks covered by our studies, we’ve streamlined the process and provided some questions below that highlight the essence of the criteria that are likely to be the most relevant to outreach efforts designed for K-6 students. By answering these questions in the context of specific outreach activities and materials—and modifying them as needed—outreach developers can add significant educational value to their efforts.

If an activity involves a demonstration or hands-on activity, does it use a relevant phenomenon to help make an important scientific idea plausible to students? Will the activity be comprehensible to students, given their grade level and prior experiences? Can students make the connection between the phenomenon and the main idea in a small number of steps and using reasoning skills that are appropriate for their age? Does the activity require complicated and time-consuming set-up, calculations, or other procedures that might distract students from the most important ideas? (See Figure 3 for an example of a phenomenon that is often used to help students understand the grades K-2 learning goal that the sun appears to move slowly across the sky (4). The example also includes commentary from Project 2061 on strengths and weaknesses of this phenomenon when used with students at different grade levels.)

If an activity or material includes representations of real-world objects or events (for example, drawings, diagrams, graphs, images, analogies and metaphors, models and simulations, or role-playing), are they accurate and likely to be comprehensible to the student audience? Will students be able to distinguish between real-world objects or events and symbolic entities? Does the activity or material make clear which aspects of an object or event are represented and which are not?

Does the activity or material include questions that can help students make sense of what they have experienced or read about? Are there questions that can help introduce students to the important scientific, mathematical, or technical ideas or issues and relate those to the scientific phenomena or representations they have experienced through the activity or material? Are there questions that ask students to explain their own ideas about the real-world objects or events they’ve just seen or experienced? Are the questions likely to make sense to students who have never studied a particular topic and are not familiar with the scientific vocabulary? For example, asking “What do you think will happen if we let go of this ball? Why do you think this will happen?” is more comprehensible to students who have not studied gravity than asking “What is the effect of gravity on this ball?” Are there questions that encourage students to relate their own ideas to the scientific ideas?


The challenge for teachers and for scientists and engineers who want to support them is finding effective resources that are well aligned with learning goals. To help meet that need, Project 2061 is identifying, developing, and making available a collection of resources that can be used to create outreach activities and materials that focus on ideas that are important for science literacy and that meet Project 2061’s criteria for instructional quality. Made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the collection includes reference tools (e.g., summaries of research on how students think about natural phenomena and ideas in science) that inform the work of curriculum materials developers and teachers, and building blocks (e.g., activities, photographs, diagrams, sets of questions, and examples of phenomena that demonstrate particular scientific ideas) that can be incorporated into outreach activities and materials. Available online, the collection will allow users to click on the text of a learning goal and access the various resources that are linked to it. Extensive hyperlinks will relate resources to each other.

Information about this and other Project 2061 activities can be found on our Web site at The site includes the full text of Project 2061’s Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy (along with many other Project 2061 publications). The chapters on historical perspectives and common themes may be especially fruitful sources of ideas and inspiration for planning outreach. For those who would like more details on Project 2061’s approach to the analysis of science and mathematics curriculum materials, the Web site also includes extensive explanations of the analysis criteria and examples drawn from a variety of materials showing instances of meeting and not meeting the criteria. Other standards documents and a wealth of additional background information on science literacy, along with links to the Web sites of more than 400 science centers worldwide can be found at, a site developed in partnership with

Taking advantage of the knowledge and experience that already exists can help make outreach efforts—whether they involve classroom demonstrations, experiments, and hands-on activities or lesson plans, kits, booklets, software, or other instructional materials—more effective for the developer, for teachers, and, most important, for the students.

See the references for this article.

Kesidou, S. & Koppal, M. 2004. Supporting Goals-Based Learning with STEM Outreach. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, 5 (2004), 5-16.