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Former Astronaut George 'Pinky' Nelson Champions Science Literacy


In his role as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Project 2061, former astronaut George D. "Pinky" Nelson is working on ways to improve science education in the nation's schools. Included: Recommendations for improving science education.

Image Dr. George D. "Pinky" Nelson is a former astronaut with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He who served on three space shuttle missions. Nelson is currently president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project 2061, a long-term program to reform K-12 science education in the United States.

Education World: Why did you get involved with Project 2061?

Dr. George "Pinky" Nelson: As an astronaut, I spent a fair amount of time visiting schools telling students about my experiences in the space program. During these visits, I often tried to spend some time with teachers and administrators talking about the school's science and mathematics curriculum. Often, especially in elementary and middle schools, my presentation, which was hardly a rigorous science lesson, was the science lesson for the week. After leaving NASA and returning to the University of Washington [to teach], I continued to "perform" in schools and became increasingly interested in science education reform at all levels.

I began teaching a seminar in science education. During one of the seminars, we used Project 2061's "Science for All Americans" and the newly drafted "Benchmarks for Science Literacy" as the primary readings. One of the course products was a detailed critique of "Benchmarks" by each of the participants, which I shared with Jim Rutherford, Project 2061's founder. Dr. Rutherford eventually recruited me to join the Project 2061 staff as deputy director, with the intent of succeeding him as director -- which I did at the end of 1997.

EW: What is needed to improve science education in the United States?

Nelson: The six elements I believe are necessary in any effective education system are

  • clear and coherent learning goals.
  • curriculum materials and assessments that are aligned with goals and incorporate the research on effective teaching and learning.
  • a living K-12 curriculum, coherent across both time and disciplines, purposefully designed to achieve learning goals and meet local needs and constraints.
  • teachers trained and supported to implement the curriculum for all students.
  • a community, including school administration, school boards, parents, higher education, business, government, and other community members, committed to achieving substantive reform and to supplying the necessary time and resources.
  • students who come to school ready to learn and are expected and supported to achieve to the best of their ability.

At the national level, we have excellent sets of goals for mathematics and science from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, theNational Research Council, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Unfortunately, these documents have been diluted and modified by states in formulating their goals documents, mostly because states generally view their standards as behavioral objectives that can be easily tested. The result is a widely varying set of state standards that are rarely coherent and don't necessarily add up to what we consider literacy. Our study of curriculum materials has found a few excellent middle school mathematics materials, some satisfactory but not excellent algebra materials, but no satisfactory science materials. Much work remains to develop and test appropriate materials and then integrate them into a well-planned whole. Teacher preparation and on-going support remain a huge challenge.

EW: What caused the decline in science literacy in this country?

Nelson: I don't believe that there has been a decline in science literacy in the United States. The notion that there was a golden age for science education or that science learning for most students was better in the past is a myth. No doubt, American education has changed during the last 40 years. Probably the most significant change is in the make-up of the teacher population and working conditions in schools. One consequence of increasing opportunities for women in the workforce is the decreasing number of highly talented women who choose teaching as a career. The boom in well-paying technical jobs provides new options for those with backgrounds in science and mathematics who might, in the past, have considered going into teaching. Growing discipline problems, poor community support, and inadequate and decaying facilities discourage the best and brightest from entering and staying in the classroom, but the claim that science was better taught or learned in the past is difficult to support. If anything, there might have been a slight increase in literacy due to increased coverage of science in the media, but we are a long way from universal literacy. Long-term studies have shown that the vast majority of Americans -- and people worldwide -- have never been science literate.

EW: Why should people be concerned about the lack of science literacy?

Nelson: In a world shaped by new developments in science and technology, science illiteracy is not an option. During their lifetimes, our students will work at jobs that have not been invented yet -- and not just one, but many. Every new job will be steeped in new technologies. They will have to make personal and civic choices about the use or abuse of new technologies and the ethical implications of new science. These should be informed choices. Human culture increasingly is built on new science and technology. Literacy is necessary to fully participate in that culture.

EW: What can parents do to increase their children's interest in science?

Nelson: Parents can encourage their children's natural interest in the world and how it works. From the time they are very young, we should share our children's wonder, read to them about what we understand about our world, how we have come to understand it and, probably even more important, what we do not yet understand. Make clear -- and without judgment -- the difference between what can and cannot be known scientifically. Learn with your kids wherever you go -- to museums, the beach, or the backyard.

This e-interview with Pinky Nelson is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.