Reprinted here with the permission of the Ripon Quarterly - The Journal of National Politics & Policy. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written permission of the editor.

Ripon Quarterly, Spring 1999 - Volume 34 - Number 1

Science & Math Education for the 21st Century

by George D. Nelson

In general knowledge of science and mathematics, U.S. 12th grader scores were among the lowest of 21 nations that participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). And U.S. students taking Advanced Placement mathematics and physics courses ranked even lower when compared to their international counterparts. Bad news? Yes. New news? Decidedly not. The fact is, the TIMSS data merely support what educators and researchers have known for decades: Most children, even the brightest, are failing to learn much that is useful in science, mathematics, and technology. But what should students be learning? How should students be taught? How should science and mathematics education be improved? Why is this important now, given today’s booming economy and the lowest unemployment rate in decades? Isn’t the current system working just fine?

Since 1985, Project 2061 has been helping to answer these questions. While earlier education reform efforts have focused on preparing more students for a few scientific and technical careers, Project 2061’s approach grows out of the recognition that science, mathematics, and technology are major influences in the lives of all citizens, no matter what their roles in society may be. Today, nearly every career is a science and technology career.

Project 2061 is a nationwide K-12 science education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A 1996 study released by the Organisarion of Economic Cooperation and Development on innovations in science education around the world describes Project 2061 as the "single most visible attempt at science education reform in American history." SRI International, in a year-long evaluation of the influence of the project and its publications, credits Project 2061 for its efforts that have "changed the national climate for science education reform." But despite the successes of Project 2061 and of other reform efforts, persistent and multiple weaknesses in the complicated U.S. educational system continue to threaten our children and the nation.

To help make meaningful and long-lasting improvements, Project 2061’s efforts are now focused on achieving the following key conditions for success: clear and specific learning goals for all students; curriculum materials, including textbooks and tests, aligned with these learning goals; teachers who are well-prepared and supported to help students achieve the goals; a K-12 curriculum purposefully designed to result in science and mathematics literacy; and communities—administrations and school boards, parents, business and industry, churches, government—that understand and are committed to long-term education improvement for all students.

Science Literacy and Science for All Americans

The first step towards achieving these conditions was to envision the knowledge and skills that today’s students will need as adults in the 21st century. In Science for All Americans (1989), Project 2061 presents a broad, yet clear definition of science literacy, emphasizing the connections among ideas in the natural and social sciences, mathematics, and technology. According to Science for All Americans, a science literate person is one who:

  • is familiar with the natural world.
  • understands the key concepts and principles of science, mathematics, and technology.
  • 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.

With Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) Project 2061 created the first set of specific recommendarions for what students in grades 2, 5, 8, and 12 should know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology. Together, Science for All Americans and Benchmarks have sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide and have become essential resources for a growing number of reform efforts abroad and a great many at the national, state, and local levels. Benchmarks has shaped the science curriculum frameworks and science standards in most states and provided the foundation for the National Science Education Standards published by the National Research Council in 1996. Educators now have a clear and coherent tool to help them decide what to include in (or exclude from) a core curriculum, when to teach it, and why.

Project 2061 is producing a coordinated set of print, CD-ROM, and online tools designed to help educators make changes in what and how they teach. These include Resources for Science Literacy: Professional Development (1997), Blueprints for Reform (1998), and Dialogue on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education (1999). Scheduled for publication later this year are Designs for Science Literacy and Atlas of Science Literacy.

Standards-Based Curriculum and Assessment

With sound, well-accepted benchmarks for student learning now in place, Project 2061 has turned to the next task. In 1997, the National Education Goals Panel released several recommendations regarding the implementation of education benchmarks and standards to improve student achievement in science and mathematics. Calling for an independent source to "provide high quality narrative reviews of textbooks and instructional materials to schools and the public," the Goals Panel also gave high priority to identifying materials that "explain the underlying concepts in the subject area, how they balance depth and breadth, and how well they represent the subject area standards."

Project 2061 took on this challenge. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the project has developed a curriculum-materials analysis procedure that is now being used to evaluate many of the most widely-used textbooks. Starting with an evaluation of math and science textbooks for the middle grades (a critical leverage point for reform efforts, according to research), the project plans to move on to evaluate high school and then elementary school textbooks.

Results from the middle grades mathematics textbook evaluation bring both good news and bad. While a few relatively new textbooks are excellent and provide both in-depth mathematics content and strong instructional support, the textbooks used in most classrooms today are weak in their coverage of basic concepts and instructional support for students and teachers. In addition, many do little to develop more sophisticated mathematical ideas from grades 6 through 8 — something research shows can stall students’ achievement, lower their interest in mathematics, and limit academic and career options in the future. A full report on the evaluation of 13 middle grades mathematics textbooks is available online at The science textbook review will be published later this summer.

Teachers’ Key Role

Project 2061 continues to develop tools for improving science, mathematics, and technology education. To ground all of these efforts in the realities of the classroom, Project 2061 works closely with teachers and administrators from schools and districts around the country. Out of these experiences, the project has created a unique set of workshops, seminars, and other professional development opportunities that support educators as they put benchmarks and standards to work in their classrooms. Through Project 2061 Professional Development Programs (PDP), teachers, administrators, university faculty (and even parents and community leaders) can take part in custom-designed workshops that will show them how benchmarks and standards can be used to help all students reach their highest potential in science and mathematics.

Science Education Tomorrow

Although a healthy debate on what and how students should learn will continue at the national and local levels, one thing is clear: The nation cannot meet the challenges of the future unless today’s children have a better understanding of the world and how it works. Literacy in science, mathematics, and technology is not an option for the citizens of the 21st century.

George D. Nelson is a research astronomer and director of Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He flew three space shuttle missions from 1978 to 1989 while a NASA astronaut.


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1989). Science for All Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Atkin, J. Myron, Bianchini, Julie A., & Holthuis, Nicole I. (1996). The different worlds of Project 2061. Paris: Organisarion of Economic Cooperation and Development.

National Research council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

TIMSS high school results released. (1998, April). TIMSS U.S. National Research Center Report No. 8, p. 1-2.

Zucker, Andrew A., Young, Viki M., Luczak, John. (1996). Evaluation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Nelson, G. 1999. Science and Math Education for the 21st Century. Ripon Quarterly, 34 (1).