Nation & World

How Sputnik changed U.S. education

4 min read

Fifty years later, panelists consider a new science education ‘surge’

Education experts said Oct. 4 that the United States may be overdue for a science education overhaul like the one undertaken after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite 50 years ago, and predicted that a window for change may open as the Iraq war winds down.

Though Sputnik was a relatively simple satellite compared with the more complex machines to follow, its beeping signal from space galvanized the United States to enact reforms in science and engineering education so that the nation could regain technological ground it appeared to have lost to its Soviet rival.

Sputnik’s radio signal highlighted not only the fact that the Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space, it also made it clear the Soviets possessed rocket technology strong enough to launch nuclear bombs at the United States.

Speakers at Thursday’s panel discussion about the educational impact of the Sputnik launch, sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), said that the nation responded to the security threat by targeting education, a reaction it has repeated since, including after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The post-Sputnik reforms were put in the hands of scientists, much to the dismay of some educators and concerned citizens who had previously had enormous input on curriculum design. Several of the changes, such as including hands-on laboratory experience, remain in use today, the speakers said.

The Oct. 4 panel included Frank Baumgartner, professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University; John Rudolph, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Tina Grotzer, assistant professor of education at HGSE. It was hosted by Harvard doctoral students Brent Maddin and Rebecca Miller.

Maddin said that Sputnik woke the nation up, serving as a “focusing event” that put a spotlight on a national problem. In this case, he said, the problem was education. Congress responded a year later with the National Defense Education Act, which increased funding for education at all levels, including low-interest student loans to college students, with the focus on scientific and technical education.

Miller said that pattern has been repeated in the decades since, including post-9/11 and more recently, with a focus not on terrorism, but on global economic competition.

“Decades after Sputnik burned in the atmosphere, we’re still talking about science education as a means of security,” Miller said.

While Sputnik may have been a focusing event, Rudolph said changes to the U.S. educational system had been in the works for years. Education reforms began in the early 1950s and were spurred by investment from the National Science Foundation. Perhaps more significant than Sputnik, he said, were two events in 1955, the publication of a book on “Soviet Professional Manpower” and the Soviet detonation of the hydrogen bomb.

In 1957, Rudolph said, Sputnik’s launch further embarrassed the nation, shocking it into action.

“We were getting outworked by conscientious, dedicated Russian students,” Rudolph said. “The launch revealed missile technology that could deliver a bomb to the U.S. … Sputnik raised the stakes.”

While Rudolph said it may be time for another round of reforms, Baumgartner said that that was far easier said than done.

Baumgartner said the political agenda is crowded these days, and it is difficult to get politicians to focus on any particular issue. The Iraq war and the war on terror take up not only a lot of politicians’ time and energy, they do the same for the public, limiting the attention citizens pay to issues such as education reform.

Still, he said, government typically grows during wartime and then shrinks again when wars end, but never back to the prewar level. That presents an opportunity when a conflict ends to not only get reforms enacted, but to get them funded.

Baumgartner cautioned, however, that education is an issue in which many are interested. A national debate over education reform will draw many players into the arena, some of whom have conflicting agendas.

“There’re a lot of people in America that don’t like science,” Baumgartner said. “You have to be careful what you wish for when something like education rises to the front pages. Not only scientists respond. Others who have very serious agendas and political power [are also interested].”

Education reform may be easier to pass in legislation than to realize in the classroom, Grotzer said. Teaching science is challenging, requiring debunking common misconceptions and conceptual progressions that require skilled teachers and which take students from a base knowledge to the understanding of higher concepts.

“The very, very best science teachers with very, very deep understanding of scientific concepts often struggle teaching certain concepts to students,” Grotzer said.