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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LESSONS FROM THE SPUTNIK ERA
IN MATHEMATICS EDUCATION


Glenda T. Lappan
Michigan State University

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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During the Second World War thousands of young men were drafted into military service. As the branches of the service tested recruits in mathematics, they discovered that their level of mathematical knowledge was very low¾far too low to satisfy the military that the country had the technical expertise to support military supremacy in the cold war years. Concerns heated up in the country over the lack of mathematics and science skills of young people. Dr. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, chaired a presidential committee that in 1945 issued a report entitled Science the Endless Frontier. This report called for bipartisan federal support for science, including mathematics, technology and higher education. The foundation of the argument presented was that the U.S. victory in World War II had hinged on technological superiority, and that without federal support in peacetime, any future conflicts might result in defeat due to scientific deficiencies. Dr. Bush called for a renewal of scientific talent to meet national security needs. One primary recommendation of the report was the creation of a national agency to fund research in mathematics, science, and engineering. In addition, the agency was to work to increase the scientific and technical person-power of this country. In response, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was established in 1950 and has been the backbone of support for mathematics and science and for science and mathematics education ever since.

During the fifties the debate in Congress about federal aid to schools continued. The recession had caused schools to be neglected. Buildings were in disrepair, new schools were needed, and resources for educating students were lacking. The arguments in Congress centered on a debate between aid to schools that would build buildings and a defense-education bill. Sputnik tipped the scale in favor of the National Defense Education Act that was passed in 1958 with an allocation of almost one billion dollars for education in the name of national defense. The NDEA had major provisions for loans to higher education students; fellowships for advanced study of mathematics and science; guidance counseling and testing to identify able students; improvement of K-12 science, mathematics, and foreign language programs; vocational programs; and research on effective uses of television and other media for educational purposes. Now there were two arsenals deployed in the aftermath of the war to strengthen the scientific capabilities of the country¾the NSF and the NDEA.

The NSF Strategy for Improving Mathematics and Science Education


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