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Do we need another sputnik?

This October 4th marks the 50th anniversary of Sputnik. The Soviet satellite amplified America's Cold War fears and stimulated a public and political response. Sputnik culminated years of criticism centering on Progressive education and expanded the role of scientists in educational reform. Although the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) curriculum lead by Jerrold Zacharias was already underway, Sputnik brought the reform efforts to fruition. America hoped to recover international leadership in science and mathematics education. Accelerating, broadening, and deepening educational reform that had already been initiated. One of the first, largest, and longest-lasting of the post-Sputnik projects was the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) which will celebrate 50 years of leadership in 2008.

Does the United States need another Sputnik? Clearly, there will not be another Sputnik, but we need what Sputnik has come to symbolize-an era of significant reform of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. In 2007 one can identify similar concerns about national security and the need for scientists, engineers, and scientifically literate citizens. The 50th anniversary of Sputnik presents an opportunity to pause and reflect on that period in science education and offers potential insights for our contemporary era.

Here are several insights about Sputnik. The competitor and venue were clear--the Soviet Union and a race to space. President Kennedy challenged the nation to respond by setting a clear goal: Send a man to the moon and return him safely. The President also set a timeline--by the end of the decade. This goal had a clear and visible symbol that every American could see on a regular basis-the moon. Accomplishing the ultimate goal included approximations of success that the public could see and understand--suborbital flights, orbital flights, a flight around the moon and back, and ultimately landing a man on the moon. One component of the U.S. response involved curriculum reform lead by the scientific community.

One final insight centers on the use of curriculum materials and science teacher institutes as the primary methods of reform. Both of these methods center on the core of teachers' effective interaction with students. This was a positive and productive way the federal government facilitated educational reform.

The United States now confronts new challenges associated with the economy; and I would add the environment, and natural resources. The National Research Council report, Rising Above The Gathering Storm (NRC, 2007), has become one of several major reports signaling the need for a national response. Thomas Friedman has sustained public attention for a new reform in his book, The World Is Flat (Friedman, 2005). Friedman has an interesting if not compelling premise: The international economic playing field is level, hence the metaphor --hence the world is flat. The "flattening" that Friedman refers to is a result of information technologies and associated innovations that have made it technically possible and economically feasible for U.S. companies to locate work "offshore," for example, call centers in India. The revolution of informational technologies has developed a generation of digital natives and left many of us as digital immigrants. The implications for STEM education are significant, to say the least.

On balance, Friedman argues that a flatter world will benefit all of us, those in developed and developing countries. Friedman does address education questions in a chapter entitled "The Quiet Crisis." According to Friedman, "The American education system from kindergarten through twelfth grade just is not stimulating enough for young people to want to go into science, math, and engineering" (p. 270). Friedman continues:
 Because it takes fifteen years to create a scientist or advanced
 engineer, starting from when that young man or woman first gets
 hooked on science and math in elementary school, we should be
 embarking on an all-hands-on-deck, no-holds-barred, crash program
 for science and engineering education immediately. The fact that we
 are not doing so is our quiet crisis (p. 275).

The science education community is left with the fundamental question-What should be done to address the quiet crisis?

The United States must again reform science education, in this case because we are losing our competitive edge in the global economy and clearly must attend to environmental and resource issues because they often underlie economic realities. However, this era is very different from the Sputnik era. The competitors are greater in number--countries with developed economies such as Canada, France, Germany, and Japan. Also we must consider the fastest growing economies such as China, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Israel, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. The primary goal is less clear and more complex--to prosper in a global economy. And, the timeline for achievement is less clear. A decade? A half century? What is the symbol? The Dow Jones Index? NASDEQ? Do we have any indicators? Increased trade? A lower trade deficit?

Although some insights are not as clear, most agree that central to the global economy is scientific excellence and technological innovation. A logical extension of the proposition is that the United States needs scientists and engineers. I argue that the country also requires higher levels of scientific and technological literacy for all citizens. Finally, few would disagree with the assertion that the K-12 education system can and should play a central role in the responses. I propose responses for K-12 science education that do align with several insights from the Sputnik era.

Develop a New Generation of Instructional Materials for Science & Technology in Grades K-12

Design specifications for these instructional materials include:

1. using core concepts from science and technology

2. providing a coherent framework for horizontal (e.g., grade 10 biology) and vertical (e.g., K-5 science program) articulation

3. incorporating contemporary research on how students learn

4. aligning materials with key themes from international, national, and state standards and assessments

5. emphasizing scientific inquiry and technological design as features of the programs.

Support for new instructional materials should include several programs for all grade-levels (e.g., elementary school, middle school, and high school), incorporation of educational technologies (e.g., use of simulations), and addressing the needs of all students (e.g., college bound and workforce).

Support Professional Development of Science & Technology Teachers in Grades K-12

Several specific actions are recommended to achieve this goal:

* establishing summer institutes of two weeks duration that focus on building teachers content and pedagogical knowledge and skills. There would be follow-up of six days minimum during the academic year.

* developing online communities to support all participating teachers. These professional development programs should be concentrated and continuous, have an educational context, focus on content, and establish professional learning communities.

The professional development programs should provide enough initial time to establish a clear foundation for teaching and learning. In addition to an early concentration, the program should extend over a year (or more) and include continuous work on selecting curriculum materials and improving instruction. The educational context for the professional development programs should include curriculum; that is, content and pedagogy with a direct and purposeful meaning for teachers. Core concepts and processes of science and technology must be the programs' focus. Finally, the programs require the establishment of professional learning communities with teams of teachers analyzing teaching, engaging in lesson study, reviewing content, and working on the implementation of instructional materials.

Align Certification & Accreditation of Science Teachers with Contemporary National Priorities

This recommendation uses the critical leverage of science teacher certification to facilitate reform of undergraduate teacher education programs. No discussion of improving science education escapes acknowledging the need to change teacher education. This includes changes in states' certification and national accreditation, e.g., NCATE. In addition, federal support to colleges and universities that prepare significant numbers of future science teachers will be a major contribution to their reform. To this recommendation I would add special support to colleges and universities with significant populations of Hispanic, African American, and Native American students so the institutions can recruit and prepare a greater diversity of science teachers.

Build District-Level Capacity for Continuous Improvement STEM Programs for Grades K-12

The specific actions necessary for this priority include:

1. developing teams of leaders who have the responsibility for curriculum reform

2. providing summer programs and technical assistance during the academic year

3. centering on a critical leverage point such as selection of new instructional materials

4. designing programs so the district builds an infrastructure that is sustainable over time.

This priority connects to other priorities with the goal of sustaining the initial results attained through professional development, curriculum reform, and reform of undergraduate education. Although the federal costs will initially be high, by building district-level capacity one could anticipate reduced support in the long term.

Explain to the Public This School Science Reform & Why It Will Benefit Their Children & the Country

One of the great insights from the Sputnik era was the fact that national leaders provided clear and compelling explanations of what the reform was and why it was important. Further, there was continued support for science teachers and a national enthusiasm for reform. For example, proclamations such as "I'm a BSCS teacher." "I am teaching science as inquiry." Or "We are preparing science teachers for BSCS programs" echoed throughout the schools and colleges of this country.

Having stated these recommendations I will note some important features. First, they center on critical leverage points to address immediate and long-term problems. Second, the direct implication for federal policy is financial support versus unfunded mandates, requests for cooperation, general recommendations to state and local governments, or appeals for support from business and industry. Third, priorities include multiple and coordinated efforts among, for example, U.S. Department of Education, The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other agencies. Fourth, where possible, the initiatives should build on current research, such as How Students Learn: Science In The Classroom (NRC, 2006), America's Lab Report (NRC, 2006), and Taking Science To School (NRC, 2007). Finally policy makers can support these priorities from a nonpartisan perspective. It is in the United States' interest to recruit and prepare more scientists and engineers and achieve higher levels of scientific and technological literacy.

From classrooms to the highest office, the Sputnik era responded in positive and constructive ways. Providing science curricula and support for implementation built on teachers' interests and abilities. We answered science teachers' needs and concerns as the Sputnik era developed. Insights from that era should be considered as the nation prepares for a new reform of STEM education. There will not be another Sputnik, but using Sputnik as a metaphor for educational reform is timely. To conclude, do we need another Sputnik? Yes, we do.


Friedman, T. (2005). The World Is Flat: A Brief History Of The Twenty First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

National Research Council. (2007). Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing And Employing America For A Brighter Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2006). How Students Learn: Science In The Classroom. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2006). America's Lab Report: Investigations In High School Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2006). Taking Science To School: Learning and Teaching Science In Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Rodger W. Bybee

Executive Director (Emeritus)

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study

Colorado Springs, CO 80918
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Title Annotation:GUEST EDITORIAL
Author:Bybee, Rodger W.
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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