It was only the size of a beach ball, but the first satellite was shiny enough to reflect light all the way to the mountains where Jim Williamson and his family had gone on a fishing trip.

“I remember lying in the grass with my dad, looking into the night sky and watching the Sputnik go over, and asking ‘What is it?’ and ‘What does it do?’” says the WSU faculty member. His neighbors also wondered and worried. “They were building a bomb shelter.”

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, Americans feared that their Cold War enemy had a military advantage and fretted that the United States had lost its technological edge. The result was not only a space race and the creation of NASA, but a tsunami of interest in science education. Fifty years later, Sputnik’s ripple effects continue, affecting students like those at the WSU College of Education who are learning from Williamson how to teach science.

“When Americans thought the Russians had beaten us, huge amounts of money were given for science education reform,” says Associate Dean Lynda Paznokas. She taught the science methods class before Williamson and remains deeply involved in efforts to improve science education. “The first kit-based, inquiry-based science programs were put together and used in the 1960s and ‘70s.”

The kits were commercially produced boxes of supplies that teachers used to give children the hands-on feel of science. The problem, Williamson says, is that in the early years teachers got little instruction themselves. They could show children how to conduct simple experiments—beans sprouting in wet cotton were on classroom windowsills across America—but could not convey what scientists actually learned.

The new approach also unnerved a lot of teachers, who found it much easier to teach from text books. Williamson recalls how, at the start of his long career teaching in public schools, other teachers would gladly swap classes so that he would be the one teaching the hands-on lessons. “I loved it,” he recalls.

Now that Williamson is retired from Pullman schools and is an adjunct instructor at WSU, students in the Department of Teaching and Learning are the ones benefiting from his enthusiasm for science.  He works out of a daylight-bright classroom designed specifically for showing would-be teachers how to teach science to children. 

The supply room is packed with science kits, but they have changed. They put much more emphasis on content than when Williamson and Paznokas began teaching. The latest catchword of science education is “inquiry.” Science lessons start in kindergarten and, ideally, are integrated into math, reading and other subjects.

“Science plays into nearly everything you teach during the day,” says Williamson. “It uses all of our teaching skills—listening, coaching and figuring out what your kids are really learning.”

These days, interest in science education is being stimulated by an “economic Sputnik”: the fierce science and technology competition that the U.S. faces in the global marketplace. In Washington, the governor and superintendent of public instruction want to know how the students stack up against the Pacific Rim countries that are the state’s business competitors.  Lawmakers have responded to those concerns.

“The amount of money the Legislature put into science education this year is staggering,” says Paznokas, who is WSU’s Boeing Distinguished Professor of Science Education. “It’s an exciting opportunity.”

One driving force for improvement in science education is the state assessment test known as the WASL.  Science will soon be added in 2013 to the list of test subjects, meaning this year’s seventh graders must prove their proficiency in order to graduate from high school. While there has been much angst over the failure of so many students to pass the math portion of WASL, Paznokas is optimistic that science teachers will be better prepared to help their students. One reason is work being done by LASER, a statewide science teaching improvement program. Another organization helping the cause is Teachers of Teachers of Science, comprised of professors from colleges and universities across the state. Each year they meet in Pullman to discuss teacher preparation, including use of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant designed to add significant environmental education/sustainability training to their programs.

While the space race is over, space exploration continues to inspire budding scientists. One high-profile advocate of science education is astronaut Barbara Morgan. She is a former Idaho teacher and a friend of Paznokas, who went to Florida in August to see Morgan make her long-awaited liftoff in the space shuttle Endeavor. Crew members carried with them 10 million basil seeds, which NASA will send to students around the country as part of a challenge to design plant-growth chambers that could be used on the moon.

Before the successful mission, Morgan described education as key to the future and to space exploration. “Education and exploration are really very much the same,” she said. “It’s all about discovering, it’s all about experimenting. And it’s all about taking what you discover and what you experiment with, and what you learn, and sharing that with others.”

For further information, contact Jim Williamson at (509) 335-7983
williamsonj@wsu.edu, Lynda Paznokas at (509) 335-0987
lpaznokas@wsu.edu, or Julie Titone, jtitone@wsu.edu, (509) 335-5554.