Tomorrow, October 4, 2007, marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik.
It changed my life and the life of all Americans who are old enough to remember the event.
I was less than two months shy of my 13th birthday, confident that I was living in the greatest country in the world. Our science and technology was unparalleled. Our nation was secure from attack. Our schools were the best. Our prosperity was unrivaled.
I loved school, and science was my passion then as now. I was looking forward to a career in which I could participate in the great space adventure.
I expected to see humans on the Moon in my lifetime, but I thought I would be too old to be one of them. The post-Sputnik space race changed that. I was too young for Apollo–and never physically fit enough to be an astronaut in any case.
I expected to see space missions to the other planets. I expected to make a great discovery–though I didn’t know enough science to understand what that meant. (Okay, that link points not to a great discovery, but to a technique that continues to get journal citations after 33 years.)
Though the United States was indeed all those things I thought it was, it was also becoming complacent. Sputnik shook us out of our complacency, and it launched a series of reforms in science education that created a new generation of scientists and engineers.
I was one of the first beneficiaries of those reforms. My high school physics teacher participated in the development of the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) Physics course. Its emphasis on observation, measurement, and critical thinking contributed to who I was when I graduated high school; who I became through college and graduate work; who I was as a young professor, then an industrial and academic researcher; then as a liaison between the university and K-12 education; and finally who I am today when I write science books for young readers.
Many of the science education reforms initiated by the shock of Sputnik, as discussed in a newly reissued book by Paul Dickson, have faded, to be replaced by an ill-conceived emphasis on standardized testing.
Perhaps it is time to revisit the reforms of 50 years ago to discover what they did right.
I invite others to share their Sputnik memories and their views on education as part of this thread.