Issue 4, January 2002
Sputnik: Fellow Traveler Takes America for a Ride
How a Russian Satellite Placed American Education Reform in the Spotlight
Chemical Engineering, University of Virginia
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
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
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.
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
Dow, Peter B. Schoolhouse Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University
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:
of Young Investigators. 2002. Volume Five.
Copyright © 2002 by A.J. Howes and JYI. All rights reserved.