Sputnik Nostalgia

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Science  05 Oct 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5847, pp. 17
DOI: 10.1126/science.1150389

Here we are, in the middle of an intense struggle over how we can improve the education of young men and women about science. In the United States, we have the America COMPETES legislation, with its emphasis on STEM, the rather dull acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. Some nations thought to be better at STEM than the United States seem to be worrying too. My present job sometimes leads people who are concerned about the quality of science education to ask me questions like this: “What must happen to wake us up and get us really committed to this?”

Well, once upon a time, an event of that kind really did happen. On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched a 183-pound Earth-orbiting satellite named Sputnik, an event whose anniversary is saluted from different national perspectives in this issue. Sputnik's appearance, and its annoying “beep-beep” as it passed overhead, produced a striking reaction in the United States that was only enhanced when the Project Vanguard rocket—a much-advertised U.S. contribution to the International Geophysical Year—blew up trying to launch a satellite much smaller than Sputnik only months later. Trumped first, then humiliated!


The response was one of those political improbabilities. Congress promptly passed the National Defense Education Act, as well as legislation that established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The post of Science Adviser to the President was created, though not in statute, and President James Killian of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to occupy it. Almost immediately, the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget for science education tripled. That soon altered lives; one of them was mine, and I hope you will forgive a few personal reflections.

The physicists quickly got to work, the CHEMStudy curriculum came along, and new opportunities for biologists appeared. Sputnik had scarcely fallen out of orbit (leaving a part or two in Los Angeles) when I found myself on a trip to Fishs Eddy, New York, which hadn't seen many college professors. There, talking with a high-school biology teacher in a downtown bar after a day in various classrooms, I found him thinking about his job in much the same way that I thought about mine. NSF later sent me to Hamilton West High in Trenton, New Jersey, showing me how tough it is to teach seven classes in a row.

Soon organizations came together to build intellectual momentum behind the sense of urgency. The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), founded the year after Sputnik and celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, brought together some thoughtful curriculum planners and textbook writers. That resulted in series of texts focusing on cell biology, diversity, and ecology (although its “three-colors” approach of blue, yellow, and green, respectively, produced an occasional jest). But the development of challenging curricula focusing on different levels of organization and student interests turned out to be a science education milestone.

In the early to mid-1960s, Stanford became a destination for hundreds of high-school teachers enrolling in in-service NSF summer programs. My colleague Paul Hurd in the School of Education would ask me to offer a seminar course for 15 or 20 of these students. I got to pick a topic that interested me and might perhaps be introduced into classes, should it inspire teachers. A couple of times I taught animal navigation and orientation; the seminars were fun and even interesting for some graduate students, one of whom later went with me to teach an NSF summer institute in neurobiology at Carleton College.

Lively times—but 50 years later, what can be learned from the post-Sputnik attention to science education? I think the schools improved through teacher training and curricular innovation, largely due to strong federal engagement. First lesson for today: Let's lose our national wariness about letting the feds into K-12 education. The second lesson comes from perhaps the greatest reward of the Sputnik experience: the establishment of a real community of professional engagement among committed people who taught science at different levels. In the current movement toward school reform, revitalizing that sense of shared mission may be the most important policy goal of all.

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