George (Pinky) Nelson's Address at the PKAL 2000 Summer Institute

This is like being back in the classroom. And it’s a nice break for me. I don’t know how many of you know this is my day off in the middle of a thirty-one day cross-country bike ride, so I rode a hundred miles yesterday and I’ll have to ride a hundred miles tomorrow. I appreciate the opportunity to not ride a hundred miles today and to talk to you instead.

If you go back and reread the goals of PKAL, you’ll see they’re very well aligned with Project 2061, and I’ll talk about that in a little bit. But let me start with a bit of personal history.



I have an odd background to be involved in education reform. I started out as a research astronomer, and was fortunate enough to apply in the mid-70’s to be an astronaut for NASA and managed to fool the selection board and was selected in the first group to fly in the Space Shuttle. And, I was lucky enough to fly in space three times and do many interesting things. Probably the most interesting was the opportunity on my first flight (here’s a research astronomer on a flight with four test pilots) to try to rendezvous with a broken satellite, to do the first capture of a satellite on orbit, and try to repair it.

The plan was that I would don this little backpack, one designed with little nitrogen tanks and little jets that you could fly untethered from the Space Shuttle, and fly over to grab the satellite. For reasons I never questioned, they let me do this. I can tell you that there’s no more unique experience, at least in the last century, than standing with your feet strapped down 300 miles above the Earth, pulling off all your tethers, taking your feet out of the foot restraints, and just stepping off the payload bay of the Shuttle as your own independent spacecraft and flying away.

If you want something that’s a cheap thrill, well not a cheap thrill; if you want something that’s a thrill, I highly recommend it.

Of course, this was a great lesson in physics. The satellite had been launched on an expendable rocket, and there was a pin about an inch in diameter, about four or five inches long, that had been a tie-down pin on the rocket. We had built this device that I was supposed to put over the end of this pin, then clamp down and stabilize the satellite. I was to use the jets on the backpack to stop the satellite from tumbling and then capture it. And it didn’t work. Because...well, it’s a classic engineering problem.

The satellite was different than the drawings. And so, I was unable to grab the satellite, but managed to bump into it a number of times and made it tumble even more than before. And I can remember sitting in the payload bay watching the satellite tumbling and thinking, I have a Ph.D. in physics and I can’t tell you what direction this thing’s going to go next. There’s this three-dimensional, asymmetric top that was just slowly tumbling out there. It was a humbling experience, to say the least. Luckily, we got the satellite back and fixed, so I didn’t have to take full credit for losing it.


While I was in NASA, I volunteered for trips to schools, because I’ve always had an interest in education. During these visits, I set an hour or so in the schedule to talk to principal and teachers to find out just what their program was about. Generally, I was appalled. A lot of times in a middle school, the “science for the week” would be me–even though what I was doing really had nothing to do with science, but more the “takes off like a rocket, lands like an airplane” kind of thing. From this experience I became interested in just learning as much as I could about what was going on in schools and in science programs.


There were some schools where just amazing things were going on, with incredible teachers, but by and large, my impression was that the science experience of most elementary and secondary students was pretty mediocre. So when I left NASA after my last mission, I had the good luck to be invited to the University of Washington, as half-time faculty member in the astronomy department and half-time in the administration– the office of research. And I made sure I taught every quarter, because I really like being in the classroom. During this time, I started to get more involved in the K-12 communities near the University, just at the time that the standards movement was just starting across the country.

Again, I went into the K-12 classrooms as the typical scientist. I knew a lot about physics and astronomy and figured that’s all you needed to know, and if people would just listen we’d get all the problems squared away. I was really brought up short a couple of times and quickly learned that there is a lot to know about education beyond the subject matter. One lessons I learned was from Jim Minstrall, a high school physics teacher and very good educational researcher in the Seattle area, who actually has more published papers than I do. He took me aside one day and said, “You know, what do you think the kids are really learning in your own classes at the University?”


I was pretty confident. I had high student ratings and my classes were very popular, and so he said, “Well, let’s see.” We took two or three concepts I was sure that I was teaching well in my freshman-level class of three hundred students and did a little study, pre- and post-test, followed up by interviewing students over a couple of quarters. The results were devastating.

My students weren’t learning much at all, actually. Even the things everyone is supposed to know, like what causes the seasons and why there are phases of the moon and other obvious astronomical things.

This sent me back to the drawing board. I decided that I should really learn something about teaching and learning, managed to wrangle an adjunct appointment in the College of Education at the University, and started teaching a seminar in science education. My approach was to involve colleagues at the university, with usually about six or seven faculty and six or seven graduate students from science and engineering, four teachers from the Seattle public schools, and two or three from the College of Education. We would spend a quarter on guided readings and discussions about various topics in science education. Early on, we used Science for All Americans, and the draft of Benchmarks for one of the texts. And I was deeply impressed with Project 2061 as it really resonated with my own philosophy. We spent one quarter in the seminar reviewing the draft of Benchmarks, and every week the students had to write a review of a given chapter and hand it in.


At the end of the quarter I took all of this paper and wrote a cover letter and said, “Dear Project 2061, here’s what we think of your stuff” and put a big staple through it and sent it off to Jim Rutherford, founder of Project 2061. And that brought us into contact.

I stayed in contact over the next few years and joined their advisory board. One day Jim showed up in my office in Seattle and said, “I’d like you to come and be the director of Project 2061.” And I said, “Sure. Right.” He spent about a year convincing me and my wife that we should move to Washington, D.C. As I became more and more involved in working with the education standards in Washington State and with the project that developed the National Science Education Standards, I was more and more convinced that this was where I ought to put my energies. And so I agreed, and I’ve been at Project 2061 now for three-and-a-half years. I am just having a delightful experience.



You received a copy of Science for All Americans, and can see that for a very simple-looking document, it is a radical manifesto. It calls for a complete change in the way that science and mathematics and technology is to be thought about and taught in the schools. Most important, it calls for a complete change in the way science and mathematics and technology is learned in the schools. This document makes a case for literacy, that:

  • all students should understand some basic ideas about science, and mathematics, and technology
  • all students should not just grasp some low-level, fundamental ideas or facts, but should have a deep understanding of some of the fundamental, underlying concepts of those three disciplines. Students should understand the connections that go between them, that tie them together and separate them.

If you’ve reviewed the book, you’ll know this literacy that Project 2061 advocates relates to the fundamental ideas of the field. And, with a few exceptions, it does an excellent job of laying the concepts, facts, and skills that lead to a real understanding of science at the basic level, unencumbered by the trivia and vocabulary in which most science courses are buried today.


You might ask, “Yeah, but where’s the real science in there?”

If you look closely, it’s there. If you look at the beginning and the end of Science for All Americans, the first three and the last three chapters, there’s a lot more than in the typical thinking about what constitutes knowing about science. There are chapters on the nature of science, the nature of mathematics, the nature of technology, chapters on common themes and habits of mind. These are five areas we generally spend very little time on in classrooms, with students in any level. It is hard to build a case for literacy, for understanding something about science, without having first asked some difficult questions about the nature of the discipline.

How does this enterprise work?

What is the nature of evidence in science?

What is important in technology?

What’s the difference between mathematics and science?

What is it about models that’s important for all of these?

When you use a model in the classroom to describe something, how do we judge that model, what about it is good, not good, what are the limits of what it can do?

What about scientists?

What do scientists know and what do they don’t know?

When should you believe a scientist’s advice above someone who’s not a scientist, when should you not?

If someone who knows a lot about science, is their opinion about a science policy issue generally any better than the general public’s? Probably not, they probably know more about the discipline, maybe know more about the consequences, but, in terms of opinions and biases, scientists are no different from anyone else.

Those questions define the nature of the literacy we’re after in P2061.


The importance of a scientifically-literate society was brought home on the cross-country bike ride I’m now on. A few days ago, our ride through Amish country in southern Pennsylvania gives an interesting perspective on our world today. The Amish have this strange approach to life. They’re locked into technology from the mid-nineteenth century, where they use horsepower instead of machines in their daily lives. It’s a beautiful lifestyle. We saw them cutting wheat with their horse-drawn contraptions, the way everybody did it one hundred years ago.

Then we would ride 200 miles down the road and suddenly there’s a thousand-acre farm, with machinery that is large and expensive cutting down winter wheat, doing whatever they do with it to get it into a big truck riding alongside. A clear demonstration of how the world has changed in the last hundred years and how fast it is still changing. It was shocking to think, riding through the Midwest a few days later, that the farm country is probably the best example of how technology is impacting our world. The technology on the farms is incredible. Farms are huge, the machines are magnificent, there are chemicals everywhere, and GIS systems are becoming common practice. The world has changed a lot, indeed, from the time I was growing up in a rural area.


So the idea is literacy for all students. What we mean by all students in Project 2061 is really each and every student. In the back of Benchmarks, the idea was that 90% of the students should achieve 90% of the learning that’s described in Science for All Americans. And that’s a significant goal. That means we’re dealing with the bottom quartile, the middle and the top. We want every student to learn these fundamental ideas and we believe that they can.

Now that doesn’t mean that students should only learn about what’s in Science for All Americans. That’s another misconception, that somehow standards describe everything students should know about math, about science, and about technology. Standards describe what every student should know about math and science and technology, which is different from saying everything a student should know about math and science and technology. Most students could go well beyond the level that the standards describe, but today, most students are well below that level. The idea behind Project 2061 is not to produce more scientists and engineers, but rather to bring all of the population up to some basic level of literacy, then. more students can enter the pipeline, more students that look like the population of America.


This can be easily stated:
that someday in the not-too-distant future, every graduate from high school will be literate in math, science and technology, at the level of Science for All Americans.


We thought about three levels where such literacy is important.

  • There’s the level where we as individuals, as family members, have to make decisions, choices about health care, about how we’re going to live our own personal lives.
  • There are decisions that we have to make at a societal level, as citizens. How are we going to vote, how are we going to choose our congressman on various issues. And every issue now before Congress has a technological or a scientific aspect. And it’s only going to get more and more complicated:
    • How do we worry about regulating, managing genetically-modified crops, from a rational perspective?
    • How are we going to handle all of the information that comes out of the Genome project?
    • When my own field, astronomy, makes the most important biological discovery of the era in the next century, when we find life around someplace else in the universe, how are we going to deal with the issues that come out of that?

It seems that a society that has a general literacy is one that’s going to be more capable of making decisions on that level.

  • The third is the general cultural level.

Science and mathematics and technology really is a key component of our culture, along with the arts, politics, and religion. We really don’t want to leave a vast part of our population behind, as C.P. Snow forecast– splitting into those who are science-literate and those who are not. A whole society with a very few people who are literate in math, science and technology, and most who are not could lead to lots of complications, particularly for the quality of life for those who can’t appreciate how this operation works.


So the goal, which has been pretty well defined over the past twenty years, is science literacy. AAAS (Benchmarks), the National Research Council (National Science Education Standards), and every state has had a hand in this defining– several times. In fact, we’ve got lots of ‘science literacy’ lists. I would advise us to step back, take lists we already have and do something with them. Having a reasonable set of goals is the first step.


The second step is to consider what happens with these goals in the classroom to get students learning at the level of literacy we are after. We need a teacher who’s well-prepared, who knows the subject; we need to support his/her work with good curriculum materials, good assessment tools.

In Project 2061 we’ve been doing careful reviews of curriculum materials and finding that, by and large, science materials are not meeting standards we’ve set for them. We found a few good math materials, but also by and large have been disappointed here also.


We’re now starting to look at assessments, and have been reminded of the old saying that you shouldn’t look at anything too closely.

One example, not particularly unique, of the kind of assessments out there, is from the Third International Math-Science Study (TIMMS). There’s a TIMMS question about an ant crawling across a paper dealing with how many centimeters the ant crawls in such-and-such a time. You are asked to draw a graph of the ant’s distance versus time, and then draw some conclusion about the rate of the ant.

It’s not a bad question, but the interesting thing is it was classified as a life science question. Had it been a car, it might have been a technology question; if a ball rolling across a table, it might have been a physical science question. So students who answered that question scored points for their country in the life sciences. As you study such tests more and more closely, you find lots of these kinds of issues. It is basically an issue of alignment: what is attempted to be taught with what is attempted to be tested.

It’s not easy to make what you’re testing and what you’re teaching really line up with what you want students to learn. That’s a hard thing to do, and a hard thing to assess. As we look more and more at assessment in the next year or so, it’s going to be very valuable to see what the response is to our review, because these tests are being used for serious purposes, in schools and in funding agencies. They warrant a very careful look.


let me recap: goals, teachers, curriculum materials, assessment tools. Even if you have great curriculum materials and tests, that’s still not enough. Even if you have them at every grade, K-16, if those curriculum materials don’t fit together, if they don’t tell a story from year to year, if they do not start at a level and build over time to achieve the literacy goals we are after, we’ll end up with a spot here, and there, and there.

And that’s where we are right now. There are not many programs that go from year to year to build, that take an idea from the third grade, build on it in the fourth grade, take two ideas from the fourth grade, bring them together in the fifth grade, take another idea that came from the second grade and add that to learn something new so that there is a coherence across the years.

Further, to take an idea from mathematics, bring it into science to build on that, take something from science to bring it to technology, so that, not only across the years but across the subjects, there’s a coherence to the curriculum. Part of the challenge of building a curriculum aimed at literacy is not just to build an individual unit or course that makes great sense, even though that would be a wonderful start, but we also need to realize that the total educational experience can be designed purposefully to meet certain goals. That you can put pieces together– assemble, design, build to achieve specific learning goals. So, a coherent curriculum is another piece that needs to be in there.

Those are all internal pieces you might see in a classroom: the learning goals, the supported teachers, the curriculum materials, assessment, the coherent curriculum. The last piece comes from the outside: the community that supports what’s going on in the schools, in the universities; it can be the administration of your university, it can be your chairs, it can be the school board, that understands the need for reform, for change in the schools, and supports and ongoing process for change.

This is going to take a decade from now, at least. Even with all the progress that’s been made in the last fifteen years, it will be ten years from now, we’ll still be here, we’ll still be looking for better curriculum materials, for better teacher training. So the community support is absolutely vital, because if it’s not there, things could get stopped, started, stopped, started, pointed in new directions, and then that result is Brownian motion, you end up going really nowhere.


So, by now you can see the overwhelming task that we face. Of all the things that I’ve ever done, from research astrophysics to flying in space to teaching at the University to working and trying to reform education, if I had to rank them in order from easiest to hardest, flying in space is certainly the easiest. You just strap yourself in and somebody else does something and off you go. Astrophysics ranks next. Teaching, administering at the University, next, and way above that is trying to think about reform of the education system. This is the most complicated task I’ve ever been involved with, really a tough one.

Some final thoughts about higher education and your role.


I propose a ten-year project for the higher education community, one that joins you with leadership from the K-12 community. The project would be focused on literacy, with the goal that some day, in ten years or so, say, that all students who graduate from post-secondary institutions would be literate in science and mathematics and technology at the level of Science for All Americans. This is the same goal that we have for K-12, as I outlined earlier.

If we can achieve that goal, if we can graduate teachers from the universities and parents from the universities and colleges who are literate in math, science, and technology, maybe ten years from now we’ll start to see that effect in the schools, as the new graduates come into the universities and colleges, community colleges. Then, we can build on this ten-year project and raise the level of math, science and technology in colleges and universities to interface with what’s coming out of the high schools. So I’m proposing a ten-year literacy project with that goal: all the graduates educated in post-secondary education graduate literate in math, science, and technology as defined, more or less, by the goals in Science for All Americans.


I was talking with a very distinguished scientist about education, and he mentioned that, no matter what we do, ten percent of the students will educate themselves. He was discouraged about students that were coming into his classes, and said, “Well, I only teach to the top ten percent anyway. If the rest of them don’t get it, what difference does it make?” And I said, “Let’s see, now, ten percent are going to learn no matter what you do, and you teach to the top ten percent...”

And that’s what we’ve got to get around. We can teach to the top ninety percent, expect ninety percent to learn at the literacy level. And it’s the parents, the future parents and the future teachers that we’re teaching. The neat thing is, there’s so much--as you see what’s going on in your workshops here at the PKAL Institute, that people have done. There are huge resources of experience and expertise out there. No one has to reinvent.

Think of this as a science project. The first thing you do when you start a new effort or go a new direction in your science is go to the library and to conferences. You find out what everybody’s doing, what research is out there, what’s been done. You find out what’s happening, what are the directions that people are going, who are the leaders, who to talk to? And then you study what they’ve done and build on that. You don’t start over again. So take advantage to the great people involved in getting things done in the K-12 arena; make connections and build on that.


First, have clear goals about what it is important for students to learn. Take a close look at Science for All Americans or the Benchmarks for Science Literacy or National Science Education Standards, the NCTM mathematics standards, the ITEA technology standards. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about black holes, or some topics that don’t happen to be in the standards, as a way to excite students, to get them to learn, but your learning goal, what you want students to come out with, is an understanding of science and how science works, and some of the fundamental ideas.

So, what we want students to learn is really important, and higher ed hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about this yet. What we have spent some time on is the how. There’s a lot of how changes going on, with people discovering students learn differently if they work in groups, or that if you do interactive things during lectures that you can get students engaged in addressing their own ideas. Or, if you get people involved in the Web, you might be able to do some interesting things with technology, getting discussion groups or what-not. —there’s a lot of very interesting how you might change teaching and pedagogy things going on in higher ed right now, and I hope we combine that with thinking about not how we change how we teach, but we ought to think about how we change what we teach.

One of the things we sometimes show people who come to the P2061 Office is this wonderful tape from Saturday Night Live of Father Guido Sarducci doing the “five-minute university.”

He starts out, “All right, let’s be honest. What do you remember from your university days. It’s about five minutes of stuff, right?”

He goes out and says, “We have a university, lasts five minutes, teach you everything you need to know. Economics: supply and demand. Foreign language: como esta usted? Muy bien, gracias”.

And, so what we’re really after in this is, what is it that you want people to know ten years after they graduated from the university about math, science, and technology, people who aren’t going to go on and be scientists and engineers--or physicists, who might need to know something about biology, or biologists who might need to know something about engineering. What we should focus on is combining changing how we teach with changing what we teach.


There’s a significant amount of important research on how people learn, telling us some things that are very important:

  • you need to address people from where they are.

Students don’t come to class as blank slates. They have preconceptions and misconceptions and unless you elicit those ideas from them, make students confront the phenomena of the physical world, confront those ideas with their own thinking, they’re not going to change their thinking. We’re also learning that people don’t learn unless they’re made to reflect on their own learning, to think about their own thinking. These kinds of processes can be incorporated into classes. So, this is not going to make your lives easier, but recognizing that helping students learn requires a lot more knowledge than just about the subject matter; it takes knowing something about teaching, and learning. And, you know, that’s our job, as professors, one of our jobs is to do that.

  • You need to have real expectations for your students.

Expect all your students to learn. Research, in the work of Uri Treisman and others, really brings this out. Forming relationships with students as human beings, having that interpersonal relationship with them, together with a real expectation that they are going to learn, makes the contributes significantly to their learning.

This means expectations for real learning of the science, not for a watered-down version. I once submitted a proposal to the English department, which had complained to the Physics department about the level of the Physics for Poets class at the university. I proposed to teach a Poetry for Physicists class in the English department. I was going to start with Hallmark cards and work my way through the quarter up to Dr. Seuss. They didn’t accept it. The idea is not to water down the poetry that you learn, or the physics that you learn, but to prune it, carefully select some key ideas, and really dive in, learn them deeply, so the students understand something about physics or about biology, really down into their bones. Most students have never really learned anything at that level, and that turns out to be incredibly exciting. New stuff and gee-whiz things are great, but just the sheer joy of learning something really well is an incredible motivator in itself.


Let me sum up. I’m proposing a radical reform: ten years, literate students at the level of Science for All Americans graduating from the universities. It’s going to mean you’re going to have to change what classes are taught, what’s taught in those classes, and not only the stovepipe of a geology sequence or a physics sequence or a biology sequence, but—remember, part of the learning in Science for All Americans is knowing the connections among the disciplines—how mathematical modeling connects with biology, or how technology impacts science, or the nature of technology bears. There’s going to have to be communication to connect among the disciplines, to build in these connections; I’m not advocating an integrated course, although that might be an interesting approach, or a unified course or what you might call it—it’s possible to do this within the disciplines, provided you have the communications.

It is tricky talking about a ten-year project, something that’s going to take a long time, but in my mind, this is urgent– something that must begin right now. We had better get started right away, but recognize that it will take at least ten years.

It’s kind of like my bike ride, you know, if you don’t start on the First of July, I’m not going to get to Seattle the first week in August, and if I start the last week in July, I’m not going to get to Seattle until September. If you don’t start now, ten years from now, we’ll be back in this room having the same conversation. And, from what I’ve seen, there is a tremendous amount of energy out there, and I’m really encouraged by what’s going on.

I hope that, in your PKAL workshops this week and as you go back to your own campuses, you can build on the excitement and on the things you learned here, and engage those of your colleagues who are willing to be engaged (you’re not going to get everybody) bring those along that you can, and really focus on a goal, work towards that goal. Your administration, if you work it right, will be supportive; the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation has money for these things. There shouldn’t be those kind of barriers in place. Things that can be done, will be done. You know the award structure in universities is being talked about, but not really changed; that shouldn’t be much of a barrier because you want to stay scientists anyway. And that’s important.

So, what I’m advocating is that you get started now, that you set an ambitious goal—and I think that an ambitious enough goal would be that ten years from now, every student who graduates from any of your institutions would be literate in math, science, and technology—and that you work towards that, and try to find measurable ways to judge your progress along the way, and that these meetings could, year by year, part of them could be a report on your project towards that goal. And I would be really excited to participate in that. And I hope that the tools and the things that we’re doing in Project 2061 will continue to help provide resources for the kind of work that you’re doing, and that as time goes on, Project 2061, and Project Kaleidoscope, and the higher education community in general, can become more and more intertwined, involved with each other, working towards our common goal.

So, let me stop there and thanks