Skip to main content

Before the Common Core, There Was <i>Science for All Americans</i>

News, August 27, 2014, 25th Book Anniversary George DeBoer Jo Ellen Roseman, Full

George De Boer and Jo Ellen Roseman of Project 2061, which is named for the return of Halley’s Comet, a nod to the program’s long-term focus. | Carla Schaffer/ AAAS

Many of the debates swirling around states' adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards have a distinctly 21st century feel. But, at the heart of these efforts lies an ambitious AAAS book published 25 years ago that was the first to articulate what the next generation should know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology.

Today, education experts agree that Science for All Americans, a three-year collaboration among hundreds of scientists, mathematicians, and other scholars, has had a significant impact on science education reform, by helping to define the concept of science literacy and lay the groundwork for national education standards in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

More than forty states and the District of Columbia have now adopted the Common Core standards for math and English, and 12 states plus the District have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. A nationwide consensus on whether these standards will significantly improve STEM education remains elusive, but many educators and other STEM experts nonetheless embrace the idea of a set of shared goals to guide the teaching of all U.S. students. Such a vision was initially laid out in 1989, when AAAS' Project 2061 published Science for All Americans.

"It's often forgotten but it's this book that got it all going and just pervades everything else," said George De Boer, deputy director of Project 2061.

Science for All Americans was the first major publication from Project 2061, then a fledgling program headed by James Rutherford, former assistant director of the National Science Foundation and assistant secretary of education at the U.S. Department of Education. At the time, federal enthusiasm for improving STEM education, which had spiked after the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite, had waned. And, Rutherford felt he had seen too many education reform efforts fail to achieve a lasting impact.

"That's when it occurred to me that what was wrong with our whole approach was that it was too short term," Rutherford said. "We're a big, complicated country. It's going to take time to turn things around. I decided we needed to have some kind of statement saying 'Here are the understandings and skills of science that we'd like all people to have.'"

In the last two decades, the National Research Council and other organizations have also developed STEM education standards. But, it was Science for All Americans that first marked a clear departure from the previous era, according to Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061.

"The post-Sputnik science education reform was really about preparing the next generation of scientists," she said. "Science for All Americans took a new position on science literacy, which was that everyone needs some level of science knowledge and habits of mind so that when reading about a scientific report in the newspaper, for example, one would think about it in a more critical way."

To launch the project, Rutherford and his associate director, Andrew "Chick" Ahlgren convened panels of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, physicians, philosophers, historians, and educators, and tasked them with identifying the most important STEM concepts for students to master by the time they graduated high school.

These discussions formed the basis for Science for All Americans, which emphasized the interdependence of STEM fields, the importance of key concepts and principles of science, the diversity and unity of the natural world, and the need to use scientific knowledge and ways of thinking to benefit the individual and society.

The book was followed four years later by the AAAS report Benchmarks for Science Literacy, which specifies how students should progress toward these goals as they move through successive grade levels.

"What James Rutherford and Chick Algren did was pare things down and focus the content on the really big ideas. The second thing they did was use language that was very clear and not overly technical," said Rodger Bybee, a writing team leader for the Next Generation Science Standards. "Those are the types of things that we also tried to do in the new standards."

"I especially liked the theme in Science for All Americans that less detail and rote memorization is better," said Gil Omenn, who was a co-chair of the initial Project 2061 council and is now a professor of internal medicine, human genetics, and public health at the University of Michigan and the director of the UM Center for Computational Medicine & Biology. Omenn, who also served as AAAS president, noted that Project 2061 continued in this direction with a series of textbook evaluations that helped publishers reduce jargon and introduce terms more meaningfully.

Today, Project 2061 is helping teachers implement the Next Generation Science Standards through workshops that offer tools, resources, and strategies based on Science for All Americans, Benchmarks for Science Literacy and the related Atlas of Science Literacy.