Sputnik and us

  Teacher, know thy subject

Glenn Seaborg
Courtesy of The College of Chemistry at Berkeley
  Another lesson of Sputnik, says chemist Glenn Seaborg, who had a long interest in science education, was that teachers need training in science, not just in education. "The emphasis in teacher education is on methods of teaching... There was and is a feeling that it's not so important that the teacher understand the subject matter, as long as they're good at conveying it."


  Seaborg is not alone here. "Teacher training is the biggest single factor," says Alan Friedman, director of the New York Hall of Science, a science museum in New York City. "If the teacher is comfortable and enthusiastic, science education will happen."

After Sputnik, Friedman says there was a misguided attempt to "teacher-proof" the curriculum. "The idea was that if you had an activity, a filmstrip, and a book, that was sufficient, and even if the teacher was afraid of science, they could do a good job."

This full-employment act for curriculum developers was doomed anyway, Friedman says. "If anything, the opposite is true. A good teacher without any help will manage to do a good job." The real formula for a good science classroom, he says, is a "well-trained, up-to-date teacher who's supplied with material that kids can get their hands on." (The Why Files got its hands on these cool science projects.)

Seaborg, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering elements heavier than uranium, attests to the value of one great teacher. He says he hadn't taken a single science course through 10th grade, when he realized chemistry was required by the tuition-free state university, the only campus he could afford to attend. The scientist who later played an instrumental role in the development of atomic weapons and became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission recalls that his teacher, Dwight Logan Reid, "didn't just teach chemistry. He preached chemistry."

Was the cure worse than the disease?
Forty years ago, Sputnik's launching may have alarmed the public, but it was a boon to science education. Sputnik focused money, attention and a certain glamour on subjects that mainly interest -- how to say this politely? -- nerds like us Why Filers.

Science doesn't stand still. Teachers must stay up to date in their fields. But not every change was positive, says science historian Bruce Lewenstein. "In a lot of the new curriculum, there was a sense that we were looking for the best and brightest... Some people argue that poor science literacy in the general population over the past 20 years traces to the curriculum of the 1960s.

"The post-Sputnik curriculum was great if it worked," he says, "but if you were not interested in science, you got completely turned off ."

The initial efforts had other problems. "New math," as some baby boomers recall, proved marginally relevant to their educational needs, and didn't survive long in the classroom.

Keeping that shoulder to the wheel
And then there was the question of continuity. As the U.S. space program caught up with the Soviets, the alarm over Sputnik faded, and with it, the emphasis on science education. "Spending money on science education is terrific," says Alan Friedman of the New York Hall of Science, "but if you don't keep on spending, the gains fall off quickly. Education is not something you do once and forget -- it's an ongoing process."

Hard though it may be to sustain enthusiasm for science education over the decades, nothing else will work, Friedman argues. Teachers, he points out, retire or move on. Similarly, science doesn't stand still, and teachers must stay up to date in their fields.

"Sustainability is crucial," agrees chemist Glenn Seaborg. "We need to pour more money into the education system, to pay the science teachers better, competitively with the other salaries they could earn."

Heresy: Are they seeking another Sputnik?

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