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(Soundbite of Sputnik beep)

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

When that sound first reached Earth on October 4, 1957 - 50 years ago this coming week - many Americans looked up to the sky in fear, wondering whether the Russian satellite Sputnik was looking back down at them. Some Americans blamed the nation's education system for the fact that the communist beat the free world into space.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the charge helped spark a much-needed revolution in the way science was thought in American schools.

(Soundbite of music)

LARRY ABRAMSON: Sure, Sputnik engendered a lot of paranoia and dread among Americans but it also created something else.

(Soundbite of archived news report)

Unidentified Man #1: Today, a new moon in the sky - a 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.

ABRAMSON: This newsreel evokes the new fascination with science that Sputnik helped launch.

(Soundbite of archived news report)

Unidentified Man #1: You are hearing the actual signals transmitted by the earth-circling satellite - one of the great scientific feats of the age.

ABRAMSON: America's eggheads seized on that curiosity to rejuvenate the teaching of science and math in this country. Myron Atkin, professor emeritus of education at Stanford, says the nation's brain trust had long been pushing for a new direction in science education.

Professor MYRON ATKIN (Education, Stanford University): And it came from people who didn't how to park their bicycles straight at the university. They were people who were seen as remote from the life of everyday Americans.

ABRAMSON: Atkin says scientists who'd helped develop the A-bomb and radar in World War II pitched in to rewrite the science curriculum in the nation's schools. They pushed teaching toward basic research and away from the practical orientation, which they felt was holding science back.

Prof. ATKIN: How does a refrigerator work? How does the four-stroke cycle gasoline engine work? The physicists looked at this and they said, well, these are not interesting physics problems.

ABRAMSON: The effort was spearheaded by people like the late David Hawkins, an assistant to A-bomb designer J. Robert Oppenheimer. In a 1983 essay, Hawkins explained the idea behind his work. He answered those who said there was no time for his reforms, no time to reinvent the wheel. His works are read by an actor.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (Reading) I cannot resist the first reply, which is that not everything is known as yet about the wheel - either the mathematics of it or the physics. I am thinking of the world of modern physics, in which one may learn to think of rotations that go twice around before getting back to the starting point. Today's children will do well not to close their minds prematurely on the subject of wheels.

ABRAMSON: Washington gave the new science curriculum an infusion of more than a billion dollars when it passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, that was big money back then. Gerry Wheeler, who has just retired as head of the National Science Teachers Association, says the new focus made science sexy.

Dr. GERRY WHEELER (Former Executive Director, National Science Teachers Association): It's suddenly had seemed appealing. I signed up and was accepted to a special summer program. That next summer, I was able to choose my field. I chose physics and we covered a full year high school physics in six weeks.

(Soundbite of educational movie, "Rockets: How They Work")

Unidentified Man #3: When oxygen is very cold, it becomes a liquid.

ABRAMSON: The tools of education began to change. Lab kits and overhead projects where moved into classrooms. Film strips and educational movies became part of the curriculum like this one, "Rockets: How They Work."

(Soundbite of educational movie, "Rockets: How They Work")

Unidentified Man #3: It will supply the rocket engine with the oxygen it needs in order to burn fuel where there is no air.

ABRAMSON: This was also the beginning of a new federal involvement in education that would spread out in all directions in the coming years. Former science teacher Jerry Wheeler says the boom gave birth to an alphabet soup of science organizations, many of which still survive.

Dr. WHEELER: We did it after the Sputnik launch, when we trained a new generation of Americans in math and science. And we inspired millions more to greater and greater innovation when President Kennedy challenged us to send a man to the moon.

ABRAMSON: You'll hear this kind of rhetoric all the time in education circles now. But many science fans feel America's crisis mentality in education is the real problem. Stanford's Myron Atkin says we need a slow and steady approach. We don't need another short-lived boomlet. One thing he says is certain.

Prof. ATKIN: Fifty years from now, somebody like you is going to be interviewing somebody like me, talking about the horrible state of American education.

ABRAMSON: So in a historical sense, Sputnik is still up there.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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