The question of the United States' dominance in science was severely challenged in October 1957, when scientists in the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite sent into orbit. It was a monumental event with far-reaching consequences. The United States and the Soviet Union had long been embroiled in tense political, military, scientific and technological competition. With the proof of superior technology evident in the launch, that rivalry was brought to the fore and Americans were alarmed. That same year, then-president of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) J.W. Hinkley wrote, "A few months ago there was flung into the skies a challenge to the half-century-old tradition of this country's supremacy in creative and productive ability. While not the first or the only such challenge, it is the first that has been materially visible to our countrymen and the rest of mankind alike."
Sputnik added fuel to the race to space already under way between the United States and the Soviet Union. It also prompted a new interest in science and, importantly, new funding for the sciences. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act the following year, providing a billion dollars to support science education, which, in turn, inspired decades of emphasis in school curriculum. At the same time, some of the nation's most distinguished scientists became involved, looking at ways to teach high school science.
The present now will later be past
In the mid-1960s, young Bob Dylan sang "The Times They Are a'Changing," and nowhere was that change more evident than in science. Research Corporation, long primarily a producer of electrostatic precipitators, had begun divesting itself of that business. Instead, RCSA turned its attentions to patent management and to philanthropy. Hinkley was an engineer, as had been all his predecessors; but every president since him has been a scientist and an educator. "Science, or anything resembling it, has been on a pedestal since World War II, and even more since Sputnik," wrote Hinkley.For awhile, the emphasis on science curriculum in schools in the United States paid off with increased numbers of students studying science and mathematics. Between 1957 and 1967, NSF statistics show a threefold increase in the number of doctorates awarded in science in the U.S.
Since then, the numbers of doctorates have flat-lined. During the 1980s, as the urgency of the Cold War began to wane, more students began pursing careers in psychology, sociology and the liberal arts, and fewer young people were choosing careers in science. At the same time, many of those who did pursue careers in science were lured by financial rewards to pursue business or medicine, rather than research and education. Members of the science community often disagree about the need for more scientists in the U.S. In surveys examining the efficacy of science education and the need for more scientists, some study results suggest a dearth of scientists, while others proclaim a glut in a tight employment environment. But no one questions the need for more inspired and inventive scientists. And many believe that in order to attract the truly gifted to science, we must begin enticing them early. In 2005, the National Academies published Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, a report on the state of science in the United States. The first recommendation of this frequently referenced report suggested "Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education." The report concluded, "Although many people assume that the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world. We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost-and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all."
You'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone
By the end of the 1980s, Research Corporation was concerned about the quality of science education in our schools, the qualifications of high school science teachers in their subject matter, and minimal involvement of college and university faculty with the high school community. These issues inspired a new program, Partners in Science, which funded research opportunities in which high-school science teachers could partner with research scientists at colleges and universities. One teacher who participated in the program said, "After twenty-one years of teaching high school chemistry, this was the first opportunity I had to experience ‘real science.' Now I will have meaningful answers to give my students when they ask about practical applications." Brian Andreen, the founding program officer for the Partners program, mused, "We would never think of certifying a music teacher who had never played an instrument, so why do we do the equivalent in science?"The Partners awards were made to active research scientists in colleges and universities, providing funding to support high-school teachers working in laboratories under a scientist's mentorship during two consecutive summers. RCSA has always believed that research is a vital component of science education; the Partners program was a natural extension of that philosophy.
In addition to the research component of the grant, all participants were encouraged to attend an annual conference. Each conference addressed timely topics including global climate change, forensic science, molecular biology, DNA and astronomy. Among the many notable scientists who addressed these issues were Thomas R. Cech, Ralph Cicerone, Arthur B. Ellis, George D. "Pinky" Nelson, Leon Lederman, and Eugene Shoemaker.
In addition to plenary talks and poster sessions, the conferences gave high school teachers opportunities to network with their peers and discuss the research in which they'd been involved and how they were applying their experiences to influence their teaching.
In 1988, the first year of the program, 33 teacher-professor partnerships were established in Arizona, New Mexico and California. In 1990, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust joined RCSA, funding the program in the Pacific Northwest. During its 11-year lifespan, 514 high school teachers and 423 mentors participated in the program that was eventually available in 19 states. Some of the high-school teachers were inspired to seek additional education, some continued working in university labs far after their awards ended, and all of them had unusual educational experiences that no doubt affected their teaching, thoughts and actions during subsequent years. One high-school teacher remarked, "It was as if I'd wanted to fly a jet plane all my life, and suddenly someone parked one outside my door and said, ‘here, fly it!'"
It is interesting to note that the program's very success prompted its decline. RCSA program officers found the program too time-consuming and the program was suspended in 1999. M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which had supported Partners in Science in the Pacific Northwest, continued the program, though only in that area.
But the problem didn't go away. In fact, if anything, support of science education has plummeted. The Bush administration repeatedly cut funding in the sciences and de-emphasized the importance-and, at times, the veracity-of science. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated emphasis and testing only in reading and mathematics. "Some teachers are being told to stop teaching science and get back to reading and math," noted Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in a March 2004 article in BusinessWeek.
At a Senate hearing on science in 2007, Senator Edward Kennedy suggested we look to the past for inspiration, "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."
The wheel's still in spin
Likewise, RCSA is giving Partners in Science another look. Partnering once again with the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, 2009 will see the reinstatement of the Partners in Science program in Arizona. Silvia Ronco, program officer for the Arizona Partners in Science program, said, "The Partners program was always thought of as one of our great programs. The problem was that having it nationwide was too time-consuming since it takes a fair amount of work to coordinate the partnerships. Having it concentrated in Arizona is a great opportunity to have an impact in our state and at the same time enjoy the lessons we learn from this program."
During its first summer, Partners in Science will fund research opportunities for eight science teachers from the Tucson area and their research mentors at University of Arizona. Plans are in the works to expand the program to other regions in Arizona and to increase the number of participants in the years ahead. Murdock will review proposals, make recommendations, continue supporting their five-state region and host the annual national conference; RCSA will fund the program in Arizona. To learn more about the program, visit AZ Partners In Science.