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Issue 4, January 2002

Sputnik: Fellow Traveler Takes America for a Ride
How a Russian Satellite Placed American Education Reform in the Spotlight


A.J. Howes
Chemical Engineering, University of Virginia
howes@jyi.org

On October 4th, 1957, the USSR launched the first manmade satellite into orbit. Consequently, American fears of Russian technological superiority caused a finger-pointing frenzy. Fear of Russia already existed due to the onset of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation, but Sputnik was physical evidence that Russia was quickly becoming a technologically-powerful country. After much debate, the finger of blame landed on education, as the U.S. watched Russia churn out scientists and engineers like a factory (Dow 1991).

Numerous scientists warned the public of the mediocrity of American education and devised programs to solve the problem. In particular, physical science was an area so poor that MIT physics professor Jerrold Zacharias established the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC) to remedy the situation. However, it took Sputnik to finally put education reform in the spotlight of American debate, which changed physical science education forever.

After World War II, scientists recognized that technology had won the war and questioned the degree of technical expertise in America. Scientists desired a "national policy for the promotion of … education in science" (DeBoer 1997, Marsh 1963). However, Americans have historically shunned central control of anything, fearing totalitarian rule (Divine 1993). Shortly before Sputnik, research on public physical science education found that physical science was treated as information to be merely memorized and regurgitated (DeBoer 1997). The subject was not taught in the context of a historical or conceptual basis, and the textbooks were half a century behind with "superficial and sometimes erroneous material" (Dow 1991). Physical science, as well as mathematics and the other and sciences, was taught as a series of unrelated technical subjects, vaguely exploring the operation of machines and dodging underlying concepts ("The New" 1958). In 1955, the Education Testing Service studied American high schools and found that 220,000 high-ability students were not attending college. Furthermore, only a quarter of students were taking physics, which was the same fraction of students not attending college (Michels 1958). America was losing scientific manpower, removing the country from its position of world technological superiority.

While America fumbled, Russia fine-tuned its educational machine to produce scientists and engineers by the thousands. Russia quickly created an "elite generation enormously dangerous to the West, but … little noticed by it" (Clark 1956). High school education in Russia began with students devoting over half of their time to math and science (Clark 1956). Gifted students were rewarded with college education, exemption from military service, and a stipend. Students studied physics, aeronautics, electronics, and metallurgy, which were conveniently beneficial to the military. In 1956, Russia's Kalinin Polytechnic Institute alone produced 500 metallurgists, while the entire United States produced the same number (Clark 1956). American technical expertise was not keeping up: scientists forecast a technologically dominant Russia unless aggressive action was taken to reform the school system.

On Labor Day 1956, Jerrold Zacharias, an MIT physics professor, gathered together a group of prominent American scientists to change the mediocrity of physical science education. The group, called the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC), consisted of Nobel Laureate physicists, MIT professors, prominent high school teachers, and industry leaders. The purpose of the committee was to evaluate the "content of courses in physical science, hoping to find a way to make more understandable to students the world in which we live". They took on the task of creating ninety tutorial films to be viewed in classrooms; however, the mediocre nature of most textbooks expanded the group's objectives to revolutionize physical science education to include creating a new textbook, a laboratory guide, and a teacher's guide. The committee wanted to stress the understanding of concepts over the memorization of facts, and go in-depth on a few topics as opposed to vaguely covering too many. However, the program needed public funding and support, which was initially lacking (Dow 1991, Marsh 1963).

The National Science Foundation (NSF), which was a recently-created government organization at the time, approved the allocation of $300,000 to the PSSC in late 1956, after the committee's ideals were heralded by a number of America's top scientists. With this money, the committee immediately began by purchasing an abandoned movie theatre as a film studio and hiring a CBS producer to help them. Soon the committee had completed fifty-six visual recordings on experiments and activities pertinent to physical science education. In addition, a textbook, a laboratory manual, and a teacher's guide were ready for use in the fall of 1957 in eight carefully selected schools. The program was a huge success and Zacharias responded that "reaction was so good - were almost afraid to believe it" ("The New" 1958, Dow 1991). Subsequently, the program attracted more scientists who deemed the project "too attractive to pass up" (Marsh 1963). However, the program still lacked the national attention needed to combat America's educational mediocrity.

As Sputnik traversed the October sky of 1957, stunned Americans had to accept the possibility of Russian technological superiority. Prominent scientist Edward Teller described Sputnik as a "very serious defeat in a field where … the most important engagements are carried out: the classroom" (Divine 1993). The NSF immediately increased its funding of the PSSC. The committee was no longer the concern of scientists, but also provided content "in everybody else's circles as well" (Marsh 1963). Furthermore, "Sputnik served as a catalyst that brought a long-developing drive for educational reform into the spotlight" (Divine 1993). In 1958, Congress passed the National Education Defense Act, allotting nine million dollars to the NSF to fund programs like the PSSC (Marsh 1963). This sum of money was thirty times the amount the NSF had the ability to give to the PSSC two years prior. NSF funding continued to increase to help the program spread to all schools across America.

In today's physics classrooms, one can hardly get through a year without seeing a PSSC video. The program greatly affected physical science education as well as chemistry, biology, and social science education, which all underwent similar reforms (Dow 1991). The reforms led publishers to update textbooks often, organize the content around a few conceptual themes, and institute an activity-oriented laboratory course (DeBoer 1997). Never before has the interrelationship between science, math, and technology been stressed so greatly. The PSSC instilled vigor into American education, placing the country on top of the technological world (DeBoer 1997).

America usually has the ability to discern problems before they arrive. The PSSC warned America of education problems, but it took the launch of Sputnik for the public to respond by supporting programs like the PSSC. Together, Sputnik and the PSSC worked to shape America into today's advanced technological society.


Suggested Reading

Clark, Edward. "The Golden Youth of Communism." Life Magazine. 40:10 1956: 31-37.

DeBoer, George E. What We Have Learned and Where We Are Headed: Lessons from the Sputnik Era. Online paper from National Academy of Sciences symposium: Reflecting on Sputnik: Linking the Past, Present, and Future of Educational Reform. National Academy of Sciences 1997. 15 December 2001.

Divine, Robert A. The Sputnik Challenge. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Dow, Peter B. Schoolhouse Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991

Marsh, Paul E., and Ross A. Gurtner. Federal Aid to Science Education: Two Programs. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 1963

Michels, Walter C. "Teaching of Elementary Physics." Scientific American 1958 198: 57-62.

"The New Physics Class." Time Magazine. 1958 71: 41-42.
Journal of Young Investigators. 2002. Volume Five.
Copyright 2002 by A.J. Howes and JYI. All rights reserved.
 
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