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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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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Introduction
Context
Successes
Lessons

 

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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Sputnik and Science Education (continued)
F. James Rutherford, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Successes

So how did it all turn out? As I claimed at the outset, I believe that there were many important advances made in the Sputnik years—if one takes increasing our capacity for reform in science education to be the measure, not the elimination of all the deficiencies of the schools. Indeed, many of the greatest shortcomings in today’s schools were there before and after Sputnik and are likely to be around for a long time to come, at today’s reform pace. Here then is my (partial) list of Sputnik’s positive contributions to science education.

  1. We learned that under the right circumstances, some of the country’s most prestigious scientists could be drawn into the fray, and that their presence alone helped to legitimize science education reform and elevate its status in the eyes of the public (or at least of legislators and the news media). And it turned out that the involvement of those leaders was more than symbolic, for they brought fresh ideas and new leadership energy to the challenge. Bentley Glass, Jerrold Zacharias, and Glenn Seaborg come quickly to mind, but dozens of others could be named, including some, such as Gerald Holton, who are still engaged in science education reform.

  2. The many course development projects founded in the Sputnik years revealed that teachers and scientists working together are able to accomplish far more than either alone. To be sure, at the start most scientists knew little of consequence about the realities of precollege education, and few educators had a firm grasp of the content and practice of science. But both learned—the scientists shedding their frequently condescending attitude toward teachers, and the latter their needless deference to scientists. More importantly, there emerged practical knowledge on how to go about curriculum development that is still drawn on in such places as the Lawrence Hall of Science, BSCS, and the Educational Development Corporation. This includes knowing how to frame curriculum design undertakings, assemble teams, create coordinated sets of course materials, conduct field testing all along the way, and more. Should we decide at some point to launch another large-scale course-design effort, we could quickly get underway and not have to repeat the entire learning curve.

  3. One of the unintended but enormously valuable outcomes of the curriculum projects of the period was the formation of a relatively large pool of individuals—some from higher education, some from the schools—who became experts in science education R & D and leaders in the field generally. When the projects were phased out, many of the new specialists returned to their former roles, and the development of comparable successors came nearly to a halt.

  4. There now exists a national treasury of exemplary science learning resources created by the NSF course development projects—the grand alphabet of PSSC, HPP, BSCS (in three colors, no less), Chem Study, ESCP, SAPA, and many more, including, yes, the infamous MACOS. Almost every one of these produced ideas, techniques, and activities that have already found their way into diverse instructional materials or could be adopted with benefit all around. I cannot list such active and dormant contributions for all the projects, but it would take little prodding for me to provide examples from Harvard Project Physics, and I have no doubt that others could do the same for those they know well.

  5. Great stimulus was given to the inclusion of science in elementary school education and to having it be activity oriented. Prior to Sputnik little science was taught in the lower grades and what there was was bookish. While the textbook still predominates, we now know that young students respond well to doing science and know pretty well on how to teach science in those early years (whether we actually do so or not). Our experience of the period showed, I believe, that when the elementary schools were provided with science specialists (as many were during the heyday of the National Defense Education Act ) science instruction tended to be more investigative than when each teacher was held responsible for all science teaching without expert help.

  6. We found out that large numbers of teachers will respond enthusiastically and seriously to opportunities to improve their subject-matter knowledge and teaching skills and to upgrade their teaching circumstances. The summer and academic-year institutes—there were NSF institutes in all but five states by the summer before Sputnik, and the number mushroomed after that before tailing off by the early 1970s. Similarly, teachers and school administrators eagerly learned to write proposals to receive funding for laboratory facilities and equipment from the Office of Education’s NDEA program. Of course this is not true for all teachers, maybe not even for a majority, but it was certainly true for enough to oversubscribe the opportunities and enough to change what science was like in a large number of classrooms.

Lessons


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