Sputnik and us

Preparing Explorer I for launch. Courtesy of the U.S. Army Missle Command Historical Office

we all wanna change the world

Pat Rossman's class engages in some hands-on science activities.
© University of Wisconsin-Madison Office of News and Public Affairs. Photo by Jeff Miller
  The U.S. response to Sputnik
President Dwight Eisenhower, who knew that many U.S. missile projects were explorerunderway, did not share the public alarm about the launching of the Sputniks. (Indeed, the Jupiter-C rocket launched the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, on Jan. 31, 1958.)

But some of Eisenhower's advisors were uneasy about the Soviet demonstration. Just two weeks after Sputnik I, I.I. Rabi, chair of Ike's Scientific Advisory Committee, warned that the Soviet emphasis on science and math would put the enemy ahead in 10 years.

Although Eisenhower was loathe to unbalance the budget, he called training scientists and engineers "the most critical need of all... People are alarmed and thinking about science, and perhaps this alarm could be turned toward a constructive result."

That sentiment was echoed in Congress, which passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958. The $1-billion law paid for college student loans, scholarships, and scientific equipment for public and private schools. Reflecting its origin in the Sputnik furor, the act emphasized the study of math, science, and foreign languages.

Hands off my school!
Until that point, education in the United States was largley a state and local prerogative. The Act gave the federal government an unprecedented role in the education business, and set the stage for more ambitious federal initiatives that Pat Rossman in the classroom culminated in the creation of the Education Department in the late 1970s.

Yet in elementary school classrooms, the post-Sputnik changes were scarcely evident until the late 1960s, says Pat Rossman, a science teacher at Elvehjem Elementary School in McFarland, Wis., and a member of the National Institute for Science Education management team. "Actually, as elementary teachers, there was little immediate impact. No one really knew much about space... There was little staff development in local schools and teachers were generally non-political and felt they had little power to make anything better."

Slowly but surely, however, space intruded into the classrooms, she says. "I personally feel the 'big blast' happened after the first manned flight. There were people up there. Sometime it might be me or my kids! By the end of the '60s and early '70s there was lots of money pumped into R&D, teachers got in on the ground floor and were asked opinions -- can you believe -- of what would help support kids' learning."

Heaving the textbooks
I personally feel the 'big blast' happened after the first manned flight. Sputnik did not initiate the debate in the United States about the quality of schooling, but it did fuel the movement for curriculum reform. As Rossman indicates, it mobilized school districts to upgrade courses, add requirements for science and math, and buy new course materials.

The little satellite that could also gave university professors and scientists a chance to contribute to education policy and curriculum. Eager to update teaching methods, social scientists brought new understanding of learning processes, inventing new ways to teach biology, the physical sciences and mathematics. Meanwhile, their colleagues in the hard sciences began an emphasis on laboratory science that continues today, urging that a hands-on approach to science replace rote learning.

In chemistry, as elsewhere, the emphasis shifted from teaching facts and definitions to a focus on fundamental principles, says Glenn Seaborg, a University of California chemist who discovered plutonium and other elements.

Seaborg was asked to organize a pioneering chemistry course called CHEMStudy in 1959. In concert with high-school teacher and college professors, the goal was, Seaborg said, to "revolutionize high school chemistry" by updating antiquated course content, keeping abreast of modern chemistry, and drastically improving laboratory instruction.

Are you saying scary Sputnik was really a godsend?

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