Reflecting on Sputnik:  Linking the Past, Present, and Future of Educational Reform
A symposium hosted by the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education

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BUILDING LEADERSHIP TO SUSTAIN
EDUCATIONAL REFORM


Marye Anne Fox
University of Texas at Austin

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center or the National Research Council. This paper has not been reviewed by the National Research Council.

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J. Myron Atkin
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Thomas T. Liao
F. James Rutherford

 

 

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 Current Paper Sections
The Sputnik Era
Education Today

 

Other Papers
J. Myron Atkin
Rodger W. Bybee
George DeBoer
Peter Dow
(Marye Anne Fox)
John Goodlad
Jeremy Kilpatrick
Glenda T. Lappan
Thomas T. Liao
F. James Rutherford

 

 

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It has been said that almost every American over the age 40 can tell you where she was and what she was doing on November 1963 when Walter Cronkite announced to the nation that President Kennedy had died. I can equally well remember when my fourth grade teacher interrupted our long division drills to say, with great wariness in her voice, that the Russians had successfully launched a satellite. Even its name, Sputnik, was foreign and threatening. Although we were not really sure what the announcement meant, I remember the whole class looking out the window on that beautiful fall day in northern Ohio, as we strained to hear the imagined reverberations of their rockets. We were taught to crouch beneath our desks and to cover our heads with both arms, trembling and praying for divine intervention, to save us from the godless Communists, to protect us from the inevitable nuclear fallout that would accompany the Russian rockets. We would use the same measures to deal with Sputnik that we had already learned to use for an impending tornado, being prepared for either to fall from the sky at any moment.

Later, when the meaning of that announcement became clearer, I remember the national fear and dismay, the shock at being left behind; of the United States, the leader of the Western World, being surpassed technically by our sworn enemy only a little more than a decade after our very public demonstration of clear superiority in all things nuclear. Suddenly, our language changed. In the new vernacular, "rocket scientist" became the optimal intellectual attainment.

Overnight, it became equally clear that the nation's schools would have to change immediately, that her best and brightest at all levels would be given the background to become scientists, or engineers, or mathematicians, if they so chose. This expectation almost reached the level of a national frenzy, and if one was bright (and white and male), one felt an obligation to consider seriously whether one might pursue such a career.

In order to achieve these goals, support for science education flourished at all levels. New curricula were developed in the schools, and the new math stumped an entire generation of parents. Students learned sequentially more difficult material and took up the challenge faced by the nation. Students responded – so many young people chose to study physics in those years that if the growth rate in graduate degrees granted from 1960 to 1970 had been sustained, by the year 2000 every American would be a Ph.D.-level physicist .

The federal government, for its part, reaffirmed its explicit compact with Universities to support fundamental research that would lead to new understanding of all of nature. In return, University faculties would enliven their teaching and stimulate their exceptional students to respond to the nation's need. Finding financial support for scientific research at Universities and at the expanding national laboratories was easy, and post-secondary curricula were styled to winnow the increasing influx of students who chose to pursue a college education, so that the most brilliant and most dedicated young people would be identified. They would then carry the banner of US science to the forefront of important discovery.

This improved access to science and math, and the high expectations that accompanied it, brought about a flowering of things scientific and technological, so that a decade later even movie scripts would recommend that an aggressive young man on the move should know technology. "Plastics," you may remember, was the one word that Hollywood alleged would unlock untold fortunes by the end of the 60s, even if it did involve a rather cynical selling out to corporate culture.

Even so, many people in this room probably chose to become scientists or engineers because of that favorable environment. With that kind support, both emotional and financial, it slowly became apparent that even women and minorities might find a real place in the scientific community.

The successful launch of a US satellite, Explorer 1, in February 1958, did little to dispel this anxiety, but it did allow the nation to breathe a partial sigh of relief: the Americans were coming back. Young girls and boys began to keep scrapbooks populated not only by movie stars, but by astronauts. And when a US astronaut walked on the moon in 1969, we all reveled in the achievement. That problem having been solved, a relaxed nation began to turn to other concerns, to lose its focus on producing a "scientific priesthood" and a scientifically competent citizenry. At about the same time, the increasingly vocal Vietnam war protests were also bringing about a transformation of post-secondary education. These protesters disdained the deferred gratification that comes with in-depth study of difficult subjects; they attacked the notion of required, core courses; and they encouraged a flowering of electives that were sometimes light in content. Standards began to slip, and grades to inflate. As educators and as students, we became fat and lazy. The scrapbooks of pre-teens once again began to fill with sports heroes, movie stars, and rock groups with unimaginable names.

Soon thereafter, the information revolution began. Inundated with access to so many facts, people began to realize that it was unequivocally impossible for anyone to master all fields, so why try? Leave science to the experts, to the nerds who unfathomably found it interesting. (Who was the last person to have known all that was then known: Newton, Galileo, Milton, Jefferson...?) Given this apparent reality, it became acceptable, by the late-70s, for brokers and bankers to proudly proclaim their ignorance of the most elementary scientific concepts. And if that was permissible among these "Masters of the Universe," the rulers of Wall Street, why should it be different for their sons or daughters?

Much has been made of the sampling of Harvard graduates a few years ago who were unable to describe the scientific basis for the seasons, most of them saying that the earth moved further in its orbit from the sun in the winter than in the summer. And year after year, we listen as our academic colleagues complain bitterly about the poor preparation that even highly ranked incoming students bring to their freshman experiences. But let me recommend an experiment: ask your college-educated neighbor the same question about the seasons. If your neighbors are like mine, at least half of them will not only answer incorrectly in the same way as did those respondents at the Harvard commencement, but they will also challenge the question as being unfair and inappropriate. After all, why should a general practitioner, for example, be expected to know, or to care, about such things?

As scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, many of us are completely astonished by our students inability to understand scale. One of my colleagues asked his freshman students this fall to estimate the diameter of the earth. From a class of several hundred, he got two responses: 100 miles and 1.41 million miles. The first student had just arrived in Austin from Waco, a distance of about 100 miles, and perhaps the distance from home to college did represent the ends of the earth to him. But the second one? How can one be so wrong with such precision? How bewildering living every day within nature must be to such students?

Equally, we are amazed that so many of our non-scientist friends are willing to pass up the excitement that comes with understanding the principles of science and with appreciating the basis of new technologies. How can the citizens of a scientifically illiterate nation choose leaders who can wisely evaluate the technologies that will lead to the next century's prosperity? It is impossible today to read a newspaper intelligently without understanding the fundamentals of energy, environment, health, defense, and risk-assessment. Yet "science for the experts" has become a socially acceptable excuse for ignorance!

As a nation, we seem to have lost our curiosity about nature, and with it our ability to hypothesize and to use data as the basis for every day decisions. Why did we allow our national appreciation of the scientific method to slip away? When did scientific knowledge become a product for the few, not a process for the many? How could we have allowed our schools to reserve real science for the few, to ignore the fact that science training is good, even mandatory, for a variety of societal roles?

What changed? Do we really need to live under the threat of an enslaving enemy or nuclear holocaust for the American people to be willing to nurture science, mathematics, and engineering and to make the effort to learn its principles?

Science Education Today


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