Reprinted here with the permission of the Association of Science-Technology Centers. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written permission of the editor.

ASTC Newsletter, January/February 1997 - Volume 25

Project 2061: Science literacy in museums

Natalie Nielsen
Project 2061

As vice president of exhibits at Boston’s Museum of Science, Larry Bell is often consulted by museums planning their own science-related exhibits. The first question he asks them is: How does your plan tie into the science literacy goals of Science for All Americans, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the National Science Education Standards, and your state’s science curriculum framework? There is a widespread consensus among education leaders on the need for schools to focus on the learning goals outlined in these documents to improve K-12 science, mathematics, and technology education. Bell contends that any science museum aiming to meet the needs of schools that are using these publications must also align its activities with those same goals.

Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has been working for more than a decade with states, school districts, and national reform efforts as they develop curriculum frameworks and content standards in science, mathematics, and technology. Its 1989 report Science for All Americans (SFAA) outlined what high school graduates should know and be able to do in those subjects. Four years later, Benchmarks for Science Literacy expanded those science literacy goals into learning goals for the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12.

Benchmarks shares with the National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards (NSES) (1996) share some important principles of reform: reform should center on explicit and developmentally appropriate learning goals, which help define a common core of learning for all students, and this common core should cover less material so that students can learn it well. As a result, both exclude a host of topics—Ohm’s law, series and parallel circuits, phyla of plants and animals, cloud types, and balancing chemical reactions, to name a few—that clutter the traditional science curriculum. Both documents also emphasize understanding ideas over memorizing technical terms. And both encourage inquiry and investigation.

Overall, Benchmarks for Science Literacy is a set of learning goals that can be organized however one chooses. It is conceived as a tool to be used by educators in designing educational activities that make sense to them and that meet the standards for science literacy recommended in Science For All Americans. Far from pressing for one way of organizing instruction, Project 2061 pursues a reform strategy that will lead eventually to greater diversity in instruction than is common today.

What Is Science Literacy?

Project 2061 defines science literacy broadly, emphasizing the connections among ideas in the natural and social sciences, mathematics, and technology. Both Science for All Americans and Benchmarks include specific recommendations in the following areas:

  • The Nature of Science focuses on three principal subjects: the scientific world view, scientific methods of inquiry, and the nature of the scientific enterprise.
  • The Nature of Mathematics describes the creative processes involved in both theoretical and applied mathematics.
  • The Nature of Technology describes how technology extends our abilities to change the world.
  • The Physical Setting describes basic knowledge about the content and structure of the universe (on astronomical, terrestrial, and sub-microscopic levels) and the physical principles on which it seems to run.
  • The Living Environment delineates basic ideas about how living things function and how they interact with one another and their environment.
  • The Human Organism discusses the human species as one that is in some ways like other living things and in some ways unique.
  • Human Society considers individual and group behavior, social organizations, and the process of social change.
  • The Designed World reviews principles of how people shape and control the world through some key areas of technology.
  • The Mathematical World gives basic mathematical ideas, especially those with practical application, that together play a key role in almost all human endeavors.
  • Historical Perspectives illustrates the science enterprise with 10 historical examples of exceptional significance in the development of science.
  • Common Themes presents general concepts, such as systems and models, that cut across science, mathematics, and technology.
  • Habits of Mind sketches the attitudes, skills, and ways of thinking that are essential to science literacy.

Although SFAA and Benchmarks emphasize what students should learn, Project 2061 recognizes that how science is taught is equally important. The principles of learning and teaching presented in Science for All Americans are applicable to museums and science centers as well as in schools:

  • Science teaching should foster and build on students’ curiosity and creativity. Teaching should begin with questions and phenomena that are interesting and familiar to students. Abstract understanding often has to be built upon concrete examples.
  • Concepts are best learned when they are encountered in a variety of contexts and expressed in a variety of ways. Some concepts will only be learned when students restructure their thinking in light of compelling evidence.
  • If students are ultimately expected to apply ideas in novel situations, think critically, analyze information, communicate scientific ideas, make logical arguments, and work as part of a team, they must have opportunities to practice doing so in many contexts.
  • Students also need many and varied opportunities to engage in the activities associated with science—such as collecting, observing, and using instruments. The collaborative nature of scientific and technological work calls for frequent group activity.
  • Learning experiences should foster both scientific knowledge of the world and scientific habits of mind. Students should routinely question evidence, logic, and claims. They should encounter problems that require them to identify relevant evidence and offer their own interpretations of what the evidence means.
  • Students should encounter many scientific ideas presented in historical context. They should become aware of the influence society on the development of science and technology, and the impact of science and technology on society.

In contrast to many classroom settings, museums and science centers are well-suited to provide students with these essential science education experiences for a variety of reasons. They offer flexible learning environments and another context in which students can learn. Museum exhibits and programs illustrate scientific concepts using materials or objects that schools may lack, they encourage inquiry, they present ideas in historical context and highlight the relationship between science and society, and they provide opportunities to engage in scientific activities. They also provide a social context and encourage collaboration among friends, family members, and other museum visitors.

A New Approach to Exhibits

Many museums and science and technology centers are beginning to use the specific learning goals in SFAA and Benchmarks to develop exhibits and support materials for teachers. In the four examples described below, each museum has adopted different concepts from both publications and applied them to the design of different exhibits and educational programs. These programs reflect the local needs of the museum and community; at the same time, they address national and state learning goals.

Science Alive!, Grand Rapids, Mich.

The Michigan standards for science education, which are based largely on Project 2061’s learning goals, are driving the content of this interactive science center scheduled to open later this year. According to Nancy Mulnix, the center’s director, “Most formal and informal science education efforts in Michigan are influenced by the state standards. Aligning our center’s activities with those standards links the museum experience to classroom learning, which will help students meet the goals set by the state.”

Science Alive! will focus on four chapters of Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy and their connections to one another: The Living Environment, The Human Organism, The Physical Setting, and The Designed World. By basing the exhibits on concepts in Benchmarks, Mulnix hopes that students will “immediately recognize what they are learning in school, and that our exhibits will reinforce those concepts in another context.”

The Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

After reading Science for All Americans and Benchmarks, Cranbrook staff contacted Project 2061 to find out how they could use some of Project 2061’s ideas in redesigning and expanding their museum. Inspired particularly by the project’s emphasis on systems as an important theme that is common to all of science, mathematics, and technology, they are organizing their new exhibits around natural systems rather than phenomena or disciplines. According to Cranbrook’s director, Dan Appleman, “Instead of having exhibits that featured interesting but unrelated phenomena, we wanted our new exhibits to relate to each other and to be part of a larger story. At the same time, we’re developing educational programs that are not only tied directly to the exhibits, but that also meet national and state science education standards.” The first phase of the new exhibits will open in 1998, and will present key systems such as climate, plate tectonics, and evolution, and their relationships to each other.

Cranbrook is basing its exhibits on a concept similar to Project 2061’s growth-of-understanding maps—sequences of related ideas that are necessary to understand an over-arching concept. According to Dan Hoffman, Cranbrook’s lead exhibit designer, “In each exhibit, signs and labels will point visitors to specific places in other exhibits for information that will enhance their understanding of a given system. By highlighting how interconnected the systems are, we hope to give visitors a better idea of how the world works.”

Museum of Science, Boston, Mass.

Investigate! A See-for-Yourself Exhibit, the second phase of a cutting-edge exhibit plan that is based on another aspect of Science for All Americans, opened last year. “Knowing the influence we have on teachers and students, we felt compelled to do our part for science education reform. Science for All Americans helped us realize that an important part of understanding science includes learning how to think scientifically,” says Larry Bell, vice president of exhibits.

“People learn to do well what they practice doing.” This message from Science for All Americans lies at the heart of Investigate! Rather than centering on specific scientific disciplines or traditional textbook topics such as geologic time, photosynthesis, or weather, Investigate! is a series of interactive exhibits that focuses on scientific thinking skills such as observing, experimenting, and analyzing data. In an unconventional twist on interactive exhibits, visitors step into the role of scientist: asking questions, making measurements, and interpreting the results of their experiments.  As they move through the exhibit, visitors can use a skin sensor to measure their bodies’ reactions to stimuli; determine whether blowing on a hot liquid really cools it down; re-create Galileo’s Tower of Pisa experiment; or design, build, and race a scale-model solar car. They are encouraged to draw conclusions from data they accumulate and to record those conclusions at computer stations throughout the exhibit for other visitors to see.

The museum also uses Benchmarks extensively in its educational and volunteer programs. In training interpreters—most of whom have science backgrounds—museum staff uses Benchmarks to outline what children of specific ages can be expected to understand about science, mathematics, and technology. Education staff use it to familiarize teachers with the scientific process, and to help them understand specific topics in the Massachusetts state science framework, which is based on Science for All Americans, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, and the National Science Education Standards.

The Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia, Pa.

The Franklin Institute took a different tack in adopting Project 2061’s goals. As part of an ongoing teacher-outreach program with the NSF’s Urban Systemic Initiative (USI) site and Project 2061’s School-District Center in Philadelphia, the museum enlisted about 50 area teachers and department chairs to revise its “Museum to Go” kits in light of national science education standards. These kits, which went to all of the district’s 3,700 elementary teachers throughout the 1995-1996 school year, contain teacher guides and classroom materials for conducting standards-based, student activities. The teachers began their revisions by scrutinizing the kits with Benchmarks for Science Literacy in hand to ensure that the concepts taught in the kits were placed in appropriate grades. They then revamped the teachers’ materials to include performance assessment options, more inquiry-based activities, and questions that would stimulate students to reflect on what they had learned, much as Project 2061 advocates.

Science Literacy for all Museums

For museums wishing to incorporate national science literacy goals into future exhibits, educational programs, or both, these case studies are encouraging. But what about museums that become interested in Project 2061’s vision of science literacy after they have overhauled their exhibits? According to Larry Bell, every museum—no matter what its stage of development—can incorporate at least some of Project 2061’s goals. For example, museums can:

  • Re-write exhibit text to stimulate visitors to think more critically about what they are experiencing, observe more carefully, and reflect on what they are learning—i.e. encourage them to think like scientists. At the Museum of Science, labels start with a question, such as “Who has the warmest hands?” followed by instructions (“Grab the probe and find out”) or hints. Interspersed with information labels, “Challenge Cards” at the museum contain suggestions that encourage visitors to explore their own ideas and draw their own conclusions about what they are observing.
  • Train volunteers and docents to focus on themes or concepts in existing exhibits that relate to benchmarks and standards.
  • Use the cognitive research in Benchmarks to help docents become aware of how students learn and what they are able to understand about science at specific ages. Museum staff can use Benchmarks to prepare mediators and interpretive staff to probe for student knowledge and address students’ misconceptions.
  • Design educational programs that use the museum’s exhibits to emphasize particular benchmarks or standards. In their educational programs, museums can highlight not only topics in their exhibits, but also specific, related topics from Science for All Americans, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, National Science Education Standards, or their state’s framework. This enables museums to better serve schools that are working toward national or state science standards by ensuring that the museum experience complements classroom learning.

Science for All Americans is based on the belief that a science-literate person is one who understands key concepts and principles of science, is familiar with the natural world and recognizes both its diversity and unity, and uses scientific knowledge and scientific ways of thinking for individual and social purposes. Given the influence that museums and science centers have on teachers, students, and families, they are poised to make a significant contribution to improving science literacy for all Americans.

Details: Project 2061, 1200 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005; 202/326-6666; Electronic mail:; World Wide Web:

Natalie Nielsen recently joined Project 2061—AAAS’ long-term K-12 science education reform initiative—from the Department of Exhibits at Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Nielsen, N. 1997. Project 2061: Science Literacy in Museums. ASTC Newsletter, 25.