Reprinted here with the permission of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science . No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written permission of the editor.

SACNAS News, Fall 1999 - Volume 3 - Number 3


An interview with Dr. George "Pinky" Nelson, director of Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Lin Hundt

Pinky Nelson is a man accustomed to zero gravity. After all, he was an astronaut who worked outside the relative safety of an orbiting space shuttle, floating gently above the earth.

Yet he has his feet firmly planted in an earth-bound challenge: as director of Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Nelson faces the task of dramatically improving science education for all U.S. students. "Pinky" is unafraid of discussing his lofty vision.

In 1985, the AAAS launched Project 2061, a long-term effort to reform science, mathematics, and technology education for the 21st century. The name refers to the year that Halley's Comet is next due to approach the sun-- and to the project's goal of helping students understand and effectively deal with all of the scientific and technological changes that would come about by 2061. In short, it aims to face the huge challenge of improving scientific literacy for all Americans in the coming century. Dr. Nelson will be a keynote speaker at the 1999 SACNAS Annual Conference in Portland.

SACNAS News-Journal: What initially compelled you to become involved in education?

GN: Oh...brain damage, I think. (Laughs)

Personally, education has always been one of my interests. While I was going to college, studying physics, in my spare time I was reading. You know: John Holt and A.S. Neale and the people who wrote about education back in those days.

When I left NASA and got back into teaching at the university, I got interested in what my own students were learning in my classes. I discovered that I gave very standard classes and my students just weren't learning very much. It inspired me to go off and interact with some more teachers and educators to learn how I could be a better teacher, even though my student ratings were as high anybody else's in the department, and from the [usual] perspective you'd think I was just as good as a teacher as anybody else in the university. Which, sad to say, is probably true. And yet my students weren't learning very much.

So going off and studying how students learn really got me interested in how all students learn, and that got me more interested K to 12 and here I am.

I stumbled on Project 2061 on the way. And just kind of fell in love with it. It's a terrific idea and a terrific project. So I started interacting with them and now I find myself the director. It's a pretty good deal for me.

SACNAS: You introduce yourself as "Pinky." Several of us at SACNAS have been wondering about the origin of your nickname.

GN: I got it when I was born. I was a pink baby with red hair and I've been called it my whole life. I've had to drag that around with me for a long time.

SACNAS: I wonder about your sensation of seeing the planet from outside and how that has impacted you.

GN: Well, I would say if there's one common experience that everybody who flies in space has, whether they're Marine test pilots or U.S. Senators or cosmonauts or whatever, it is the changed perspective of the planet. I think everyone comes back an environmentalist.

It's not so much that the earth looks fragile -- the earth looks like the earth, you know. But it's the overwhelming evidence of the impact that human beings have had on the planet in lots of ways -- fires and roads and electric lights and big plumes out in the lakes and rivers. Everywhere you look, it's really obvious that human beings have had a tremendous impact on the planet. And that combined with the perspective of looking sideways through the atmosphere, you get a real impression of just how thin the atmosphere is. So if there's one aspect of the earth that looks fragile it's just that there's so little air. So you can understand easily why pumping refrigerants or CO2 into the air can have such a big impact. Because it just doesn't take very much in order to fill up the volume.

I think everyone who flies in space comes back feeling like we need to be better stewards of the planet. And since we're mostly technical people we come back with the notion that technology is not the evil that's caused all of this, but we are a technical species and that technology is probably going be one of the tools we have to employ to overcome the damage we are doing to the planet.

SACNAS: How does that play out in your work at Project 2061? Is there a stewardship or an environmental aspect to the Project?

GN: Well it's certainly one of the core ideas of science literacy that are in Project 2061. And for us, science includes science and mathematics, social science and engineering and technology, too. But in those core ideas are the ideas that we have to consider the impacts of technology. That what we do can have unforeseen consequences, and that technology is necessary for not only understanding more about the world, but for being able to do something about it. So, yeah, those ideas are very core to Project 2061.

SACNAS: How would you define math and science literacy?

GN: Well, we've done that. You have to read our little book, Science for All Americans. It's not an easy thing to say, you can't say it in a sentence. There are certain core ideas about science and math and technology that we think everyone should know to be a literate citizen. And those ideas involve not only understanding and knowing some of the content. It's important to know some of the facts and some of the mechanical manipulations and operations and all that, but it's also important to understand the nature of the enterprise. How science works, and how engineering and mathematics work. And how groups work. So, it's [acquiring] certain habits of mind to understand the kind of thinking that goes on that makes something scientific. The necessity of evidence and things like that. Those ideas are all expressed in a pretty concise form in Science for All Americans. Just what knowledge and skills an adult should have to be considered science literate.

SACNAS: What kinds of challenges face Project 2061, or the nation as a whole, in achieving the vision that you are talking about?

GN: Now, there's an easy one! There are tremendous challenges and they vary across the board. In the most general terms, I see the challenges as: one, we don't have good curriculum materials. We're getting pretty good materials in mathematics now, but in science there just aren't good textbooks or good curriculum materials on the web that are going to be useful for having kids learn the important ideas.

Second, here's a tremendous shortage of teachers who are qualified to teach good science and math. And those teachers aren't being produced in the colleges and universities today. And not blaming the colleges of education, because teachers learn their math and their science in the college of arts and sciences. Students, especially students who are going to be elementary and middle teachers, just are not graduating science literate from college, much less from high school. So producing the teachers we need is another huge challenge.

Third is this idea that if you have good curriculum materials and if you have good assessments that can measure students' performance, they still have to be integrated together to make a coherent package that runs K to 13, K to 12. So that you really have some idea of what students are learning all along, the way [we've] targeted the adult literacy goals.

Probably the biggest challenge of all is the policy one. To have the community on board. To really understand that to be successful in the 20th century, 21st century, as both individuals and as cities and regions and as a nation and world, science illiteracy isn't an option. Reform is a very scary word for almost everybody, so we need to get the business community, the parents, the education community, the political community all on board with the idea that change is necessary. Real change, not deck chair stuff, not just changing the number of hours in the day, or teaching physics first or doing one thing or another but really substantially, fundamentally changing the system. And we don't know how to do that yet. They have to stick with it and understand that they aren't going to do it in a year or two years, that this a generation that's got to be involved in improving the system; and when that generation's done, it'll be the next generation's turn. You know, we're never gonna be finished. We can always do better.

SACNAS: How do you ensure that scientists, educators and parents from minority communities take part in that discussion in a really full way?

GN: That's another of the big challenges. I think today that the minority community is, in a large part, left out of this discussion and this is one of the reasons we purposefully called our description of literacy Science for All Americans. In the next century, we can't afford to have just a white male elite that's running the scientific community. Our notion is that by promoting literacy, universal literacy, for all students, that if everyone graduates from high school science literate, you're already increasing the pool for those who are actually going to go on and become scientists and engineers by an enormous amount.

SACNAS: What is Project 2061 specifically doing to address that isssue within the organization?

GN: Our goal is mostly focused on everybody, so we tend not to work specifically. We don't have a program, say, that's focused on Hispanic kids, but we try to work with those areas where the biggest need is. We're working with a lot of urban areas. And when you do that you're naturally getting those kids. So, we work in Philadelphia and San Antonio, San Francisco and San Diego.

SACNAS: What advice would you give to students who are involved in SACNAS, who are planning to enter science or science education?

GN: My standard advice is, number one, follow your interest.

You will be most successful if you do what really turns you on. Even though it may not seem like the best future career path -- you know all the jobs may be in one area, but you're interested in something else. Well, you ought to pursue what you're most interested in because you'll be most successful, you will excel more and you will make your own niche. So that's my first bit of advice.

The second is that there's always another chance, that you will fail at some point in your career and you can always start over. You can always change direction, you can always change careers-- the important part is that whatever you are doing, do it one hundred percent.

Don't give up. There's a lot of help out there. Don't be afraid to ask for help, to seek a mentor and hang onto `em and learn from others. You know, you don't have to do this on your own--learn from your peers, from your teachers, from your family. There's a lot of support you can draw on.

Hundt, L. 1999. The 2061 Challenge. SACNAS News, 3 (3).