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Orbiting the classroom

"Orbiting the classroom" Continued...

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

That Sputnik got Malcom's attention in the completely segregated city of Birmingham, then ground-zero in the brewing struggle for black civil rights, underscores the satellite's impact, she said: "For it to penetrate through all the other noise that was going on in our lives, you can imagine how strong the message had to be."

In the area of biology, Sputnik's influence was dramatic, uprooting science education from a vaguely biblical worldview that accounted for the presence of God and planting it in the parched soil of materialism. For a quarter-century after the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial, publishers of high-school science textbooks avoided offending conservative Christians by mainly avoiding the topic of evolution.

But just after Sputnik, a group of NSF-backed biologists established the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, according to The Creationists, a book by Ronald Numbers. Spurred by complaints from leading biologists that "one hundred years without Darwinism is enough," BSCS set about creating "state-of-the-art" biology texts, which it introduced in American high schools in 1963.

"Before long, nearly half of the high schools in America were using these books or other curriculum materials developed by the BSCS," Numbers wrote.

Rutherford considers it a failure of post-Sputnik reform efforts that the new science did not eradicate Americans' doubts about evolution. "With public approval . . . school boards press for the inclusion of non-scientific notions-'creationism' and 'intelligent design'-in biology courses, and require students to be informed that biological evolution is 'only a theory,'" he wrote in a 2005 paper on science-education reform. "Fifty years of teaching biology, and that's the best we could do?"

In the program he now heads at Birmingham's Briarwood Christian School (BCS), Barry Walker is incorporating the best of Sputnik's legacy while rejecting its dross. For two years, he has nurtured a math and science initiative that incorporates "modeling," a teaching method in which students develop conceptual models that explore scientific truths, then apply those models to new problems.

Example: A student ties an object to a string and swings it around his head. When he lets it go, in which direction will the object travel and why?

"In the traditional model, a teacher does a demonstration and gives the kids some notes and maybe some problems to work," Walker said. "Then the kids do a lab, mostly a fill-in-the-blank kind of thing. Then they take a test and move on to the next unit."

In the BCS initiative, which Walker developed in cooperation with Arizona State University, the kids swing the string first. Then through observation, data-collection, and Socratic questioning, they discover the way God's world really works. BCS's approach cuts against the post-Sputnik "survey" mentality. Walker said he's pleased to be part of a Christian school that is leading the way.

Such innovation comes at a time when educators and industry leaders are pining for a new "Sputnik moment." Analysts like to suggest that the emergence of China as a global technological player may be it.

Rutherford disagrees. "President Kennedy asked what it would take to win the technology battle against the Soviets," he said. "The winner, it was said, would be the nation that got to the moon first. Sure enough, we won. Game over. We bet our science education on a crisis and the crisis went away." What is needed now, Rutherford said, is sustained educational reform that builds on past efforts, instead of crisis-spurred reform by fits and starts.

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