Does Stimulus = Sputnik?

By Tracey Pilone
February 23, 2009

Yes, I'm talking about Sputnik the first satellite, and the Stimulus package that was just passed by Congress. If these two things can work out the same way, good things may be coming for math and science education.

Sputnik was launched in 1957 and went into space over the heads of millions of Americans. The thing is: it was not launched by the United States. The Russian achievement of beating the US into space led to the creation of NASA. It also led to a revolution in math and science education in the United States.

Why? Because having a satellite flying over your house that was launched by a rival nation is highly motivating. We had been working on a satellite of our own, but the Russians beat us to it. Later that year, they launched Sputnik II, which was bigger, and carried a living, breathing dog. One of the Congressional responses was the National Defense Education Act which put the Federal Government deep in the education business. Scientists were involved in the planning of curriculum, and changes were made to make better scientists, because we NEEDED them, and it worked. NASA became and remains the premiere space agency in the world, supported by scientists that were educated in part with these new innovations in education.

Now, we face another crisis. Our economy is in trouble and the President campaigned on a platform of creating green jobs. The recently passed Stimulus provides for $100 billion in new federal funding for education, DOUBLING the federal governments' financial stake in schooling. In addition, Arnie Duncan, the new Secretary of Education, has a $5 billion flexible fund for education, the Race to the Top fund. He has said that the Stimulus represents "an absolute historic opportunity."

Can Secretary Duncan and President Obama turn those funds into vast improvements in our education system? Green jobs consist of everything from farmers to scientists and engineers and all of these people need to be educated in scientific study that can help transform our industries. As it stands right now, the US scores on international math and science tests are lacking, and without improving math skills, science cannot follow.

The danger here is what Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat, calls "Watch out for that glacier!" It's hard for people to rally around something that isn't imminent. Climate change and energy independence are not something that's going to hurt you NOW, or tomorrow, or even this year. So motivating this change is going to be difficult. My hope is that the Stimulus package can be our Sputnik and lead to a revitalization of our education system to address our current and future challenges.

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