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This book is about science literacy. Science for All Americans consists of a set of recommendations on what understandings and ways of thinking are essential for all citizens in a world shaped by science and technology. Below, we discuss briefly how these came about and describe their nature and organization. But first we take up the question of why such recommendations are needed.


Education has no higher purpose than preparing people to lead personally fulfilling and responsible lives. For its part, science education—meaning education in science, mathematics, and technology—should help students to develop the understandings and habits of mind they need to become compassionate human beings able to think for themselves and to face life head on. It should equip them also to participate thoughtfully with fellow citizens in building and protecting a society that is open, decent, and vital. America's future—its ability to create a truly just society, to sustain its economic vitality, and to remain secure in a world torn by hostilities—depends more than ever on the character and quality of the education that the nation provides for all of its children.

There is more at stake, however, than individual self-fulfillment and the immediate national interest of the United States. The most serious problems that humans now face are global: unchecked population growth in many parts of the world, acid rain, the shrinking of tropical rain forests and other great sources of species diversity, the pollution of the environment, disease, social strife, the extreme inequities in the distribution of the earth's wealth, the huge investment of human intellect and scarce resources in preparing for and conducting war, the ominous shadow of nuclear holocaust—the list is long, and it is alarming.

What the future holds in store for individual human beings, the nation, and the world depends largely on the wisdom with which humans use science and technology. And that, in turn, depends on the character, distribution, and effectiveness of the education that people receive. Briefly put, the national council's argument is this:

Science, energetically pursued, can provide humanity with the knowledge of the biophysical environment and of social behavior needed to develop effective solutions to its global and local problems; without that knowledge, progress toward a safe world will be unnecessarily handicapped.

By emphasizing and explaining the dependency of living things on each other and on the physical environment, science fosters the kind of intelligent respect for nature that should inform decisions on the uses of technology; without that respect, we are in danger of recklessly destroying our life-support system.

Scientific habits of mind can help people in every walk of life to deal sensibly with problems that often involve evidence, quantitative considerations, logical arguments, and uncertainty; without the ability to think critically and independently, citizens are easy prey to dogmatists, flimflam artists, and purveyors of simple solutions to complex problems.

Technological principles relating to such topics as the nature of systems, the importance of feedback and control, the cost-benefit-risk relationship, and the inevitability of side effects give people a sound basis for assessing the use of new technologies and their implications for the environment and culture; without an understanding of those principles, people are unlikely to move beyond consideration of their own immediate self-interest.

Although many pressing global and local problems have technological origins, technology provides the tools for dealing with such problems, and the instruments for generating, through science, crucial new knowledge. Without the continuous development and creative use of new technologies, society may limit its capacity for survival and for working toward a world in which the human species is at peace with itself and its environment.

The life-enhancing potential of science and technology cannot be realized unless the public in general comes to understand science, mathematics, and technology and to acquire scientific habits of mind. Without a science-literate population, the outlook for a better world is not promising.

Most Americans are not science-literate. One only has to look at the international studies of educational performance to see that U.S. students rank near the bottom in science and mathematics—hardly what one would expect if the schools were doing their job well. The most recent international mathematics study has reported, for instance, that U.S. students are well below the international level in problem solving, and the latest study of National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that despite some small recent gains, the average performance of 17-year-olds in 1986 remained substantially lower than it had been in 1969.

The United States should be able to do better. It is, after all, a prosperous nation that claims to value public education as the foundation of democracy. And it has deliberately staked its future well-being on its competence—even leadership—in science and technology. Surely it is reasonable, therefore, to expect this commitment to show up in the form of a modern, well-supported school system staffed by highly qualified teachers and administrators. And surely the curriculum in such schools should feature science, mathematics, and technology for all students. In fact, however, the situation existing in far too many states and school districts is quite different:

Few elementary school teachers have even a rudimentary education in science and mathematics, and many junior and senior high school teachers of science and mathematics do not meet reasonable standards of preparation in those fields. Unfortunately, such deficiencies have long been tolerated by the institutions that prepare teachers, the public bodies that license them, the schools that hire them and give them their assignments, and even the teaching profession itself.

Teachers of science and mathematics have crushing teaching loads that make it nearly impossible for them to perform well, no matter how excellent their preparation may have been. This burden is made worse by the almost complete absence of a modern support system to back them up. As the world approaches the twenty-first century, the schools of America—when it comes to the deployment of people, time, and technology—seem to be still stuck in the nineteenth century.

The present science textbooks and methods of instruction, far from helping, often actually impede progress toward science literacy. They emphasize the learning of answers more than the exploration of questions, memory at the expense of critical thought, bits and pieces of information instead of understandings in context, recitation over argument, reading in lieu of doing. They fail to encourage students to work together, to share ideas and information freely with each other, or to use modern instruments to extend their intellectual capabilities.

The present curricula in science and mathematics are overstuffed and undernourished. Over the decades, they have grown with little restraint, thereby overwhelming teachers and students and making it difficult for them to keep track of what science, mathematics, and technology is truly essential. Some topics are taught over and over again in needless detail; some that are of equal or greater importance to science literacy—often from the physical and social sciences and from technology—are absent from the curriculum or are reserved for only a few students.

To turn this situation around will take determination, resources, leadership, and time. The world has changed in such a way that science literacy has become necessary for everyone, not just a privileged few; science education will have to change to make that possible. We are all responsible for the current deplorable state of affairs in education, and it will take all of us to reform it. Project 2061 hopes to contribute to that national effort.


One fundamental premise of Project 2061 is that the schools do not need to be asked to teach more and more content, but rather to focus on what is essential to science literacy and to teach it more effectively. Accordingly, the national council's recommendations for a common core of learning are limited to the ideas and skills having the greatest scientific and educational significance for science literacy.

Science for All Americans is based on the belief that the science-literate person is one who is aware that science, mathematics, and technology are interdependent human enterprises with strengths and limitations; 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. The recommendations are presented in 12 chapters that thematically cover four major categories:

Chapters 1 through 3 deal with the nature of science, mathematics, and technology—collectively, the scientific endeavor—as human enterprises.

Chapters 4 through 9 cover basic knowledge about the world as currently seen from the perspective of science and mathematics and as shaped by technology.

Chapters 10 and 11 present what people should understand about some of the great episodes in the history of the scientific endeavor and about some crosscutting themes that can serve as tools for thinking about how the world works.

Chapter 12 lays out the habits of mind that are essential for science literacy.

In considering these recommendations, it is important to keep in mind some of the special features of the report:

The Recommendations Reflect a Broad Definition of Science Literacy

Science literacy—which encompasses mathematics and technology as well as the natural and social sciences—has many facets. These include being familiar with the natural world and respecting its unity; being aware of some of the important ways in which mathematics, technology, and the sciences depend upon one another; understanding some of the key concepts and principles of science; having a capacity for scientific ways of thinking; knowing that science, mathematics, and technology are human enterprises, and knowing what that implies about their strengths and limitations; and being able to use scientific knowledge and ways of thinking for personal and social purposes.

Some of these facets of science literacy are addressed only in specific places in the report, whereas others are woven into the text of the chapters. It is essential, therefore, that the recommendations be viewed in their entirety as a multifaceted discussion of science literacy.

The Recommendations in This Report Apply to All Students

The set of recommendations constitutes a common core of learning in science, mathematics, and technology for all young people, regardless of their social circumstances and career aspirations. In particular, the recommendations pertain to those who in the past have largely been bypassed in science and mathematics education: ethnic and language minorities and girls. The recommendations do not include every interesting topic that was suggested and do not derive from diluting the traditional college preparatory curriculum. Nevertheless, the recommendations are deliberately ambitious, for it would be worse to underestimate what students can learn than to expect too much. The national council is convinced that—given clear goals, the right resources, and good teaching throughout 13 years of school—essentially all students (operationally meaning 90 percent or more) will be able to reach all of the recommended learning goals (meaning at least 90 percent) by the time they graduate from high school.

At the same time, however, no student should be limited to the common core of learning spelled out in this report. In response to special interests and skills, some students will want to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the topics than what is suggested here, and some will want to pursue topics not included here at all. A well-designed curriculum will be able to serve those special needs without sacrificing a commitment to a common core of learning in science, mathematics, and technology.

The Recommendations Have Been Selected on the Basis of Both Scientific and Human Significance

The schools do not need to be asked to teach more and more content, but to teach less in order to teach it better. By concentrating on few topics, teachers can introduce ideas gradually, in a variety of contexts, reinforcing and extending them as students mature. Students will end up with richer insights and deeper understandings than they could hope to gain from a superficial exposure to more topics than they can assimilate. The problem for curriculum developers, therefore, is much less what to add than what to eliminate.

Reversing the accretion of material over scores of years is thus a major goal of Project 2061. But addressing this goal has meant making choices. The criteria for identifying a common core of learning in science, mathematics, and technology were both scientific and educational. Consideration was given first to the ideas that seemed to be of unusual scientific importance, because there is simply too much knowledge for anyone to acquire in a lifetime, let alone 13 years. This meant favoring content that has had great influence on what is worth knowing now and what will still be worth knowing decades hence, and ruling out topics mainly of only passing technical interest or limited scientific scope. In particular, concepts were chosen that could serve as a lasting foundation on which to build more knowledge over a lifetime. The choices then had to meet important criteria having to do with human life and with the broad goals that justify universal public education in a free society. The criteria were:

Utility. Will the proposed content—knowledge or skills—significantly enhance the graduate's long-term employment prospects? Will it be useful in making personal decisions?

Social Responsibility. Is the proposed content likely to help citizens participate intelligently in making social and political decisions on matters involving science and technology?

The Intrinsic Value of Knowledge. Does the proposed content present aspects of science, mathematics, and technology that are so important in human history or so pervasive in our culture that a general education would be incomplete without them?

Philosophical Value. Does the proposed content contribute to the ability of people to ponder the enduring questions of human meaning such as life and death, perception and reality, the individual good versus the collective welfare, certainty and doubt?

Childhood Enrichment. Will the proposed content enhance childhood (a time of life that is important in its own right and not solely for what it may lead to in later life)?

The Recommendations Are Neither All New Nor Intended to Be Fixed for All Time

In formulating recommendations, no attempt was made to either seek novelty or avoid it. The task was to identify a minimal core of critical understandings and skills, whether or not they happen to be part of current school curricula. The recommendations do not constitute the only possible ones, and indeed there were differences among the participants in this project on various topics. The national council does believe, however, that the recommendations make good sense and that they offer a sound basis for designing curricula in science, mathematics, and technology.

But science, mathematics, and technology are continually in flux—holding onto some ideas and ways of doing things, reshaping or discarding some, adding others. The time will inevitably come—sooner in some areas than others—when the recommendations will need to be revised to accommodate new knowledge. Furthermore, as educators and scientists work together in Phase II of Project 2061 to design curriculum models based on this report, they are likely to reach their own conclusions on the appropriateness of these recommendations and to suggest changes. In any case, the recommendations are not presented to set up a new and unalterable orthodoxy, but rather to provide a credible resource for the Phase II development, to provoke lively debate on the question of the content of education, and to catalyze curriculum reform.

This Report Is Not a Curriculum Document or a Textbook

The reader should not expect to find recommendations in this report on what should be taught in any particular course or at any grade level. The report deals only with learning goals—what students should remember, understand, and be able to do after they have left school as a residue of their total school experience—and not with how to organize the curriculum to achieve them. Neither is the presentation of recommendations meant to instruct the reader as a text does. No linear presentation of topics can satisfactorily represent the connectedness of ideas and experiences that would be essential in an actual curriculum or textbook.

The Recommendations Are Intended to Convey the Levels of Understanding Appropriate for All People

For most educational purposes, broad generalizations (such as 'everyone should know how science and technology are related') are no more useful than are long lists of specific topics (atoms, cells, planets, graphs, etc.). Neither approach reveals what is to be learned, and both require the reader to guess what level of sophistication is intended. Thus, the specific recommendations in this report are framed in enough detail to convey the levels of understanding and the contexts of understanding intended. The recommendations have been formulated under four levels of generalization:

Chapters. Each chapter deals with a major set of related topics. Collectively, the chapter titles lay out a conceptual framework for understanding science that people can use throughout their lives as they gain new knowledge about the world.

Headings. Within each chapter, headings such as Forces That Shape the Earth or Interdependence of Life identify the conceptual categories that all students should be familiar with. A list of all the headings would provide an approximate answer to the question of the scope, but not the content, of the specific recommendations.

Paragraphs. Under each heading are paragraphs that express the residual knowledge, insights, and skills that people should possess after the details have faded from memory. If high school graduates were interviewed about a topic—Information Processing, say—they should be able to come up, in their own words, with the ideas sketched in the paragraphs under that heading.

Vocabulary. The language of the recommendations is intended to convey the level of learning advocated. The recommendations are written for today's educated adults, not students—but the technical vocabulary is limited to what would be desirable for all students to command, as a minimum, by the time they finish school. This vocabulary should be viewed as a product of a sound education in science, mathematics, and technology, but not its main purpose.

In sum, the recommendations are—to different degrees of specificity—implicit in the titles, headings, text, and vocabulary of the 12 chapters that follow. Yet there is no way, in so short a document, to convey the quality of knowledge envisaged across the full range of topics. This quality—the way in which something is known—depends largely on how it is learned. In this regard, the discussion of learning and teaching in Part III provides a perspective for understanding the nature of the recommendations themselves.


The recommendations in Science for All Americans are not those of a single person, nor are they those of a committee. They emerged, instead, from a lengthy process designed to capture both the daring insights of the individual and the critical confrontation of the group. Briefly, the steps were these:

Scientific panels appointed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science were charged with coming up with recommendations in five domains: the biological and health sciences; mathematics; the physical and information sciences and engineering; the social and behavioral sciences; and, technology. Each panel met frequently over a two-year period, often inviting consultants to meet with them to present ideas and to participate in the discussion of particular suggestions being put forward by one or more panel members.

To gain consideration, individual panel members had to defend their propositions in terms of both scientific and educational significance. As the number that survived this critical test grew, another condition was added: what should be stricken from the list to make room for the new candidate? From time to time, the panels had an opportunity to study and criticize one another's tentative recommendations. At the conclusion of its deliberations, each panel submitted a report to the National Council on Science and Technology Education summarizing its conclusions. The reports were then published by the AAAS.

The national council was also appointed by the AAAS. Its responsibility was to provide quality control for and guidance to the panels and the project staff. (This undertaking is part of a larger one called Project 2061: Education for a Changing Future, which is briefly described in Chapter 15.) The staff--primarily Rutherford and Ahlgren--met regularly with the panels and by mutual agreement took on the responsibility of drafting copy covering the territory common to all of the panels, such as the nature of the scientific endeavor, history, and cross-cutting themes. Panel members submitted ideas and criticized successive drafts.

Then the staff, with the help of many experts, undertook to prepare a single cogent report drawing on the panel reports and its own work, but not simply synthesizing them. Drafts were written, submitted to the national council, debated, and then rewritten. When the national council was finally satisfied, the draft was reviewed in detail by 130 highly qualified persons, their comments studied, and a final draft prepared. The national council recommended Science for All Americans, as it had finally come to be known, to the AAAS Board of Directors. Board members read the entire document, listened to the arguments in its favor by the national council co-chairs, discussed it at length, then voted unanimously to authorize publication.

So Science for All Americans represents the informed thinking of the science, mathematics, and technology communities as nearly as such a thing can be ascertained. It is a consensus, to be sure, but not a superficial one of the kind that would result from, say, a survey or a conference. The process cannot be said to have led to the only plausible set of recommendations on the education in science, mathematics, and technology for all children, but it certainly yielded recommendations in which we can have confidence. It is an ambitious but attainable vision that emphasizes meanings, connections, and contexts rather than fragmented bits and pieces of information and favors quality of understanding over quantity of coverage. Is not that precisely the kind of education that we should want for all Americans?

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Copyright © 1989, 1990 by American Association for the Advancement of Science