Curriculum Proposals From ‘Science for All Americans’

March 01, 1989 12 min read

All students should leave school with an awareness of what the scientific endeavor is and how it relates to their culture and their lives. This awareness should include understanding of the following:

The scientific endeavor stems from the union of science, mathematics, and technology. Technology provides science and mathematics with tools and techniques that are essential for inquiry and often suggests new lines of investigation. In the past, new technologies were based on accumulated practical knowledge, but today they are more often based on a scientific understanding of the principles that underlie how things behave. Mathematics is itself a science, but it also provides the chief language of the natural sciences and a powerful analytical tool widely used in both science and technology.

Science, mathematics, and technology have roots going far back into history and into every part of the world. Just as all peoples have been inventive, shaping tools and developing techniques for modifying their environment, so too they have been curious about nature and how it works. Although modern science--which is truly international--is only a few centuries old, aspects of it (especially in mathematics and astronomy), can be traced back to the early Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, and Arabic cultures.

Science, mathematics, and technology are expressions of both human ingenuity and human limitations with intellectual, practical, emotional, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions. Progress in these fields results from the cumulative efforts of human beings with diverse interests, talents, and personalities, although social barriers have led to the underrepresentation of women and minorities.

The various natural and social sciences differ from each other somewhat in subject matter and technique, yet they share certain values, philosophical views about knowledge, and ways of learning about the world. All of the sciences presume that the things and events in the universe occur in consistent patterns that are comprehensible through careful and systematic study. Although they all aim at producing verifiable knowledge, none of them claims to produce knowledge that is absolutely true and beyond change.

The subject matter investigated and techniques used within the various sciences change with time and the development of new instruments, and the boundaries of the scientific disciplines are constantly shifting. Even so, the general attributes of scientific inquiry persist. Descriptive, experimental, and historical approaches are used, depending on the phenomena being studied and the tools at hand. However, the approaches are all alike in their demand for evidence, their use of testable hypotheses and logical reasoning, their search for explanatory and predictive theories, and their efforts to identify and avoid bias.

Mathematics is the science of abstract patterns and relationships. As a theoretical discipline, it explores the possible relationships among abstractions without concern for whether they have counterparts in the real world. It often turns out, however, that discoveries in pure mathematics have surprising and altogether unanticipated practical value. As an applied science, mathematics deals with problems that originate in the natural and social sciences and in the everyday world of experience. In trying to solve such problems, it sometimes happens that fundamental mathematical discoveries are made.

Whether theoretical or applied, mathematics is a creative process rather than one of using memorized rules to calculate answers. Mathematical processes include representing some aspects of things abstractly, manipulating the abstractions logically to find new relationships between them, and seeing whether the new relationships say something useful about the original things. The things studied in this way may be objects, collections, events, processes, ideas, numbers, or other mathematical abstractions.

In the broadest sense, technology extends our abilities to change the world: to cut, shape, or put together materials; to move things from one place to another; to reach farther with our hands, voices, senses, and minds. Engineering is a process of designing and building technological systems to achieve such changes. Engineers must take into account physical, economic, political, social, ecological, aesthetic, and ethical considerations, and make trade-offs among them.

Technological and social systems strongly interact with each other. Social and economic forces determine which technologies will be undertaken, paid attention to, invested in, and used; technology, in turn, has always had an enormous impact on the nature of human society. Some of the social effects of technological change--benefits, costs, risks--can be anticipated, and some cannot.

Knowledge of science, mathematics, and technology is valuable for everyone because it makes the world more comprehensible and more interesting. Science for All Americans does not advocate, however, that all students need to gain detailed knowledge of the scientific disciplines as such. Instead, the report recommends that students develop a set of cogent views of the world as illuminated by the concepts and principles of science. Such views include the following:

The structure and evolution of the universe, with emphasis on the similarity of materials and forces found everywhere in it, the universe’s response to a few general principles (such as universal gravitation and the conservation of energy), and ways in which the universe is investigated.

The general features of the planet earth, including its location, motion, origin, and resources; the dynamics by which its surface is shaped and reshaped; the effect of living organisms on its surface and atmosphere; and how its landforms, oceans and rivers, climate, and resources have influenced where and how people live and how human history has unfolded.

The basic concepts related to matter, energy, force, and motion, with emphasis on their use in models to explain a vast and diverse array of natural phenomena from the birth of stars to the behavior of cells.

The living environment, emphasizing the rich diversity of the earth’s organisms and the surprising similarity in the structure and functions of their cells; the dependence of species on each other and on the physical environment; and the flow of matter and energy through the cycles of life.

Biological evolution as a concept based on extensive geological and molecular evidence, as an explanation for the diversity and similarity of life forms, and as a central organizing principle for all of biology.

The human organism as a biological, social, and technological species--including its similarities to other organisms, its unique capacity for learning, and the strong biological similarity among all humans in contrast to the large cultural differences among groups of them.

The human life cycle through all stages of development and maturation, emphasizing the factors that contribute to birth of a healthy child, to the fullest development of human potential, and to improved life expectancy.

The basic structure and functioning of the human body, seen as a complex system of cells and organs that serve the fundamental functions of deriving energy from food, protection against injury, internal coordination, and reproduction.

Physical and mental health as they involve the interaction of biological, physiological, psychological, social, economic, cultural, and environmental factors, including the effects of food, exercise, drugs, and air and water quality.

Medical technologies, including mechanical, chemical, electronic, biological, and genetic materials and techniques; their use in enhancing the functioning of the human body; their role in the detection, diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment of disease; and the ethical and economic issues raised by their use.

Features of human social dynamics, including the consequences of the cultural setting into which a person is born, the nature and effects of class distinctions, the variations among societies in what is considered appropriate behavior, the social effects of group affiliation, and the role of technolgy in shaping social behavior.

Social change and conflict, with emphasis on factors that stimulate or retard change, the significance of social trade-offs, causes of conflict, mechanisms for resolving conflict among groups and individuals, the role of governments in directing and moderating change, and the effects of the growing interdependence of world social and economic systems.

Forms of political and economic organization, emphasizing the intertwining of political and economic viewpoints, the ways in which theoretical political and economic systems differ from each other, and the frequent mixing of capitalistic and socialistic systems in practice.

The human population, including its size, density, and distribution, the technological factors that have led to its rapid increase and dominance, its impact on other species and the environment, and its future in relation to resources and their use.

The nature of technologies, including agriculture, with emphasis on both the agricultural revolution in ancient times and the effects on 20th-century agricultural productivity of the use of biological and chemical technologies; the acquisition, processing and use of materials and energy, with particular attention to both the Industrial Revolution and the current revolution in manufacturing based on the use of computers; and information processing and communications, with emphasis on the impact of computers and electronic communications on comtemporary society.

The mathematics of symbols and symbolic relationships, emphasizing the kinds, properties, and uses of numbers and shapes; graphic and algebraic ways of expressing relationships among things; and coordinate systems as a means of relating numbers to geometry and geography.

Probability, including the kinds of uncertainty that limit knowledge, methods of estimating and expressing probablilites, and the use of such methods in predicting results when large numbers are involved.

Data analysis, with an emphasis on numerical and graphic ways of summarizing data, the nature and limitations of correlations, and the problem of sampling in data collection.

Reasoning, including the nature and limitations of deductive logic, the uses and dangers of generalizing from a limited number of experiences, and reasoning by analogy.

Scientific literacy also includes seeing the scientific endeavor in the light of cultural and intellectual history and being familiar with some powerful ideas that cut across the landscape of science, mathematics, and technology. To that end, the national council recommends that all students develop the following perspectives on science:

An awareness that scientific views of the world result both from a combination of evolutionary changes, consisting of many small discoveries accumulating over long periods of time, and from revolutionary changes, consisting of the rapid reorganization of ways of thinking about the world.

Familiarity with some of the episodes in the history of science and technology that are of surpassing significance for our cultural heritage. Such milestones in the development of Western thought and action include Galileo’s role in changing our perception of our place in the universe; Newton’s demonstration that the same laws apply to motion in the heavens and on earth; Darwin’s observations of the variety and relatedness of life forms that led to his postulating a mechanism for how they came about; Lyell’s documentation in layers of rock of the great age of the earth; and Pasteur’s identification of infectious disease with tiny organisms that could be seen only with a microscope.

An understanding of a few thematic ideas that have proven to be especially useful in thinking about how things work. These include the idea of systems as a unified whole in which each part is understandable only in relation to the other parts; of models as physical devices, drawings, equations, computer programs, or mental images that suggest how things work or might work; of stability and change in systems; and of the effects of scale on the behavior of objects and systems.

Throughout history, people have concerned themselves with the transmission of habits of mind--shared values, attitudes, and ways of thinking--from one generation to the next. Given the great and increasing impact of science and technology on every facet of contemporary life, part of scientific literacy consists of possessing certain scientific values, attitudes, and patterns of thought. Accordingly, the national council recommends that elementary and secondary education be modified as necessary to ensure that all students emerge with the following:

The internalization of some of the values inherent in the practice of science, mathematics, and technology, especially respect for the use of evidence and logical reasoning in making arguments; honesty, curiosity, and openness to new ideas; and skepticism in evaluating claims and arguments.

Informed, balanced beliefs about the social benefits of the scientific endeavor--beliefs based on the ways in which people use knowledge and technologies and also on the continuing need to develop new knowledge and technologies.

A positive attitude toward being able to understand science and mathematics, deal with quantitative matters, think critically, measure accurately, and use ordinary tools and instruments (including calculators and computers).

Computational skills, including the ability to make certain mental calculations rapidly and accurately; to perform calculations using paper and pencil and electronic calculators; and to estimate approximate answers when appropriate and to check on the reasonableness of other computations.

Manipulation and observation skills, with emphasis on the correct use of measuring instruments; the ability to use a computer for storing and retrieving information; and the use of ordinary hand tools.

Communication skills, including the ability to express basic ideas, instructions, and information clearly both orally and in writing, to organize information in tables and simple graphs, and to draw rough diagrams. Communicating effectively also includes the ability to read and comprehend science and technology news as presented in the popular print and broadcast media, as well as general reading skills.

Critical-response skills that prepare people to carefully judge the assertions--especially those that invoke the mantle of science--made by advertisers, public figures, organizations, and the entertainment and news media, and to subject their own claims to the same kind of scrutiny so as to become less bound by prejudice and rationalization.

1989 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science Inc. Reprinted with permission.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as Curriculum Proposals From ‘Science for All Americans’