Science Teachers Eye Pentagon as New Source of Funding

By Sally Reed — April 14, 1982 6 min read
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Science educators from across the country gathered here last week to mull over a now-familiar litany of problems--the “brain drain” of teachers to industry, the shortage of qualified replacements, the need to learn about new technology and to apply it in their classrooms, and shrinking budgets for their programs.

But the liveliest debate of the National Science Teachers Association’s (nsta) annual gathering was provoked by the suggestion of a leading scientist that help for the troubled profession may be available from a controversial new source--the U.S. Department of Defense.

In a major address, D. Allan Bromley, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and professor of physics at Yale University, said there are already successful industry-sponsored programs in the schools involving science and more are needed.

In addition, he said, “there’s one area we must not forget--the Department of Defense. At a time when the Defense Department’s budget has increased by 47 percent since 1980, and when it is experiencing a fantastic shortage of manpower able to cope with increasingly sophisticated systems--communications, weapons, and what have you--it is important that ... those responsible for our defense can neither be nor feel to be cut off from the rest of society.

“That’s an isolation the rest of us simply cannot afford,” he added. “So we must begin to rebuild our bridges to the Defense Department.”

Personnel and Equipment

For decades, the physicist said, the Defense Department has provided military personnel and equipment for rotc programs in high schools and colleges. Now, he asserted, “This should be expanded to help schools in scientific and mathematical teaching and training.”

But building new links between the schools and the defense establishment could be difficult, he pointed out. “The military frequently involves secrecy. Science education involves open education, and [cooperative ventures] are going to involve good will on both sides or they are not going to work.”

Whether that good will is possible or not, and whether a growing conflict between secrecy and academic freedom would be the inevitable outcome of cooperation sparked a continuing discussion among the science educators.

William G. Aldridge, executive director of the nsta, said the growing involvement of the Department of Defense in schools is becoming a major issue now among his members, who worry about a military intrusion into a traditionally civilian domain.

“The Defense Department needs highly trained, qualified people and these are not coming out of the schools today,” he said. “The thinking is that since they have tons of money, we will go to Defense instead of to the National Science Foundation (nsf) or Department of Education. But the Department of Defense wants narrowly trained specialists, and that’s not [the goal of public] education. ... It’s giving power to a vested group with a certain point of view.”

Fletcher G. Watson, professor of education emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wondered what limitations would be placed on teachers in their research and teaching if programs now at the Department of Education were transferred to the Department of Defense.

In addition, he said, “In an educated society, we need people skilled in science and technology, but we also need poets, artists, and writers, and many other [professionals] besides scientists.”

George A. Keyworth, II, director of the federal Office of Science and Technology, said following his address to the organization that the concept of involving the military in the schools is a “naive” suggestion. While it might be “appropriate” at the secondary and post-secondary level, he added, it certainly would be “meddlesome” at the elementary level.

However, Robert E. Yager, nsta’s new president, said that in the future if there is no Department of Energy, no Education Department, and no money for science education from nsf, then the Defense Department may be the only place schools can turn for financial support.

“I wouldn’t say this is good,” he said. “But if we’re forced into it and it is the only place to go and as long as we pick the curriculum, then we should not pass up the chance.”

‘Concerns Are Different’

“But what could they offer us?” asked James P. Barufaldi, associate professor of science and education and director of the Science Education Center at the University of Texas in Austin. “They have no education department. What would they teach us? Bombing techniques? Chemical warfare? They don’t have trained people now. They could give financial support in the form of fellowships, perhaps. But their concerns are different. They would not, for example, be interested in providing education for all, but only for an educational elite.”

Mr. Barufaldi said he saw the same possible conflict of interest with the involvement of private industry in the schools.

“There are always strings attached,” he said, mentioning a Texas oil company that wanted to design a curriculum on energy education but was only interested in covering those energy sources based on fossil fuels. “Plus I think that the private sector is tired,” he added. “Everyone is asking for more support.”

While many at the conference agreed that the only way to avoid such potential conflicts of interest was to increase federal spending for science education, few believed that was likely. At workshops and in speeches, others supported these strategies to help solve some of the problems facing science education:

Differential salary scales. Though opposed by teacher unions, they would enable schools facing a shortage of mathematics and science teachers to offer higher salaries competitive with industry to attract qualified professionals.

New summer programs for in-service teachers and for gifted students.

A national science center, funded by textbook publishers or a group of industries, to develop a contemporary science curriculum. The center could be located in one of the National Institute of Education centers or laboratories scheduled to be closed.

Increased support for and interest in science teaching through locally organized science fairs and special science days.

Aggressive lobbying on the state and local level by science educators for block-grant funds.

But discussing complex problems without easy answers did not seem to diminish the science teachers’ zest for exploring the newest tools of their profession.

Workshop sessions on the uses of the microcomputer in the classroom--noticeably the biggest change in the conference program from previous years--were packed.

Over 40 separate sessions introduced the group of primarily secondary teachers to the latest in technology. Topics ranged from why a teacher should use a computer to specific demonstrations of its use in physics, earth sciences, biology, and chemistry.

Teachers from schools that already have computers in place reported using them for drill and practice of basic skills, problem solving, evaluation and testing, simulations of science experiments, and independent study.

The advantage, many teachers claimed, is that the microcomputer aids handicapped students and provides instant feedback and individualized instruction.

However, Gerald Krockover, professor of geosciences and elementary education at Purdue University, complained that all too often the microcomputer is used as an “electronic worksheet.”

“If teachers used them for creative problem solving and simulation that would be one thing,” he said. “But most are not.”


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