Lessons Drawn From Sputnik 50 Years Later

By Sean Cavanagh — September 25, 2007 8 min read
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Fifty years ago, with the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite, millions of Americans found themselves peering anxiously into the night sky—and also looking inward, as they reconsidered previously cozy assumptions about their nation’s technological and educational superiority.

The 184-pound, unmanned aluminum beacon lasted just three months in orbit. But its legacy resonates to this day among U.S. educators and policymakers, who say lessons can be drawn from that Cold War-era milestone, even if they disagree on what those lessons are.

Elected officials and business leaders continue to invoke Sputnik, which shot into space a half-century ago next week, on Oct. 4, 1957, in their calls to meet foreign economic competition by improving the skills of American students in mathematics, science, and other subjects.

Just last month, members of Congress in both parties referred to Sputnik as they approved the America COMPETES Act, which calls for billions of dollars in new spending on math and science education.

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“Russia was beating us. They had put a satellite into orbit,” Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee, said in promoting the bill, which he co-sponsored. “Today, we are again being challenged.”

“If our students and workers are to have the best chance to succeed in life, and employers [are] to remain competitive,” Mr. Enzi added, “we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to achieve academically.”

Many observers see parallels, but also clear differences, between the U.S. response to Sputnik, which prompted a wave of federal spending on math and science curricula, and today, when the challenges facing the United States in the global economy are more complicated.

“It’s more of a slow, creeping crisis,” said Craig Barrett, the chairman of the Intel Corp., a Silicon Valley computer-technology giant. Mr. Barrett, who has called for more emphasis on math and science education, says there is a greater challenge now in convincing the public of the need to improve in those areas.

“We’re not going to see another Sputnik,” Mr. Barrett said in an interview last week. “Absolutely, it’s more difficult.”

Economic Threats

Mr. Barrett joined federal officials and business executives at a National Summit on American Competitiveness, held Sept. 18 in Washington, one of many events in recent years in which educators and others have sought to draw a link between K-12 academic skills and U.S. business growth and innovation. The summit was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Some attendees who advocate improved science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, education said policymakers could seize on the public’s understanding of—and unease about—the changing global economy to drive home the importance of those subjects.

“This country reacts to [national security] threats. But it also reacts to economic threats,” said H. Frederick Dylla, the executive director of the American Institute of Physics, an advocacy organization in College Park, Md. “There are many parallels” with Sputnik, he said. Economic issues are “a similar kind of bellwether.”

‘Sense of Crisis’

The launch five decades ago of Sputnik I—the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth—is widely viewed as having kick-started the space race between the United States and the U.S.S.R., as well as having accelerated the arms race between the Cold War superpowers.

Equipped with a radio beacon and antennae, Sputnik was able to orbit the Earth in about 1½ hours, according to an account by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Contrary to popular belief, scientists say the beachball-size satellite itself was too small to be seen with the naked eye from Earth, though the rocket that accompanied it was.

How Much Is Enough?

70% of parents polled in Kansas and Missouri say that their children are being taught the right amount of math and science in school.

25% say more math and science are needed.

2% say less math and science should be taught.

SOURCE: Public Agenda

The Soviets’ accomplishment shocked most members of the American scientific and political communities. While historians have since cast doubts on the satellite’s usefulness as a tool for conducting surveillance—despite U.S. concerns at the time—there is no disputing the alarm it created among the public.

Teachers interrupted classes to tell students about Sputnik’s launch. Schools broadcast the news over their public-address systems.

Daniel H. Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an expert on energy issues, was a student during that era. He recalled in an interview how the principal at his school in Los Angeles brought together 7th graders whom he regarded as talented in math, including Mr. Yergin, and their parents.

Rather than moving into 8th grade math the next year, the principal told them, the students would plunge directly into high school math, Mr. Yergin recounted. Circumstances demanded it.

“Sputnik was really a shock to the nation’s confidence,” said Mr. Yergin, the chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a Massachusetts-based consulting company. “There was this palpable sense of crisis across America.”

Impact on Curriculum

The event also prompted a broad response from the federal government, which in the years that followed made an unprecedented investment in precollegiate curriculum and teacher development.

Much of that investment was made in the National Science Foundation, which supported the creation and revision of curricula in biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Efforts later spread to the social sciences.

Some of the curricula, such as those that promoted the need for hands-on student experiments in science, won praise and continue to influence classroom practice. Others were criticized and faded from use.

U.S. policymakers today could draw inspiration from the sense of unity on school issues that emerged after Sputnik, said Susan F. Sclafani, a former assistant secretary for vocational education in the current Bush administration.

But another lesson was that the government needs to set strong criteria for judging the effectiveness of school curricula and programs, argued Ms. Sclafani, who believes that such oversight was largely missing from the federal efforts that occurred after Sputnik.

Ms. Sclafani also believes that too much of the nation’s focus in the years after Sputnik was on serving high-achieving students, rather than raising standards for all students.

“It was a very elitist approach,” she said, and the push for improvement “never got down to all kids.”

According to Ms. Sclafani, U.S. officials now need a strategy to demand more from both the overall student population and the most talented students. That could be partly accomplished, she said, by combining improved, more focused teaching, such as through the use of math and science specialists in elementary schools, and creating new opportunities for gifted students.

Other experts, such as George Hein, who worked on one of the post-Sputnik projects on science curriculum, say the federal education commitment during that period was more egalitarian than critics acknowledge. Those efforts, he said, helped expand the teaching of basic science in elementary schools.

Seeking Inspiration

The attitude, post-Sputnik, was that “having science education for everybody was a part of having a healthy democracy,” said Mr. Hein, now a professor emeritus of education at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Mass.

Dennis M. Bartels, the executive director of the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, credits Sputnik-era curricula with placing a greater emphasis on classroom strategies that were written with the needs of classroom teachers, rather than academic scholars, in mind.

Curriculum today should be crafted with the same spirit of pragmatism, he said.

“It was a great period of experimentation,” said Mr. Bartels, who formerly developed NSF-supported curricula, though not in the period immediately following Sputnik. “Curriculum was developed for real kids and real circumstances.”

While Sputnik provided teachers in the late 1950s and the 1960s with a galvanizing event to get students interested in math and science, many current observers worry that enthusiasm for those subjects among students has dimmed.

Those concerns were underscored by the results of a public-opinion survey released last week. It found that students and parents in the region surveyed were largely satisfied with the level of science and math education offered in schools, in contrast to the views of the many researchers and advocates who say schools should be demanding more.

‘More Jaded Now’

Jeff Adkins, a physics and astronomy teacher at Deer Valley High School, in Antioch, Calif., said students of the early 21st century are less likely to be drawn into science by a single, landmark event like Sputnik.

Mr. Adkins typically talks about the impact of the Soviet satellite once a year during his classes.

He sometimes uses the 1999 movie “October Sky,” the true story of a West Virginia boy’s determination to launch a homemade rocket in the wake of Sputnik, to help explain the event’s relevance.

“We’re more jaded now,” Mr. Adkins said. “You can’t [use] a single stunt to get kids motivated. You have to have something more personal.”

One strategy that has worked for him is the use of independent science projects. He asks students to conduct open-ended projects that can focus either on conducting research or explaining a physics or astronomy issues to their classmates.

Past projects have examined such varied topics as the Spitzer Space Telescope, which NASA launched in 2003; the Mars Global Surveyor, which provided images of the red planet; and gender bias in astronomy.

“It’s targeting kids, by getting them to work on a project they have a vested interest in,” Mr. Adkins explained. “They have ownership of it.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2007 edition of Education Week as Lessons Drawn From Sputnik 50 Years Later


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