If you were a student in the mid-1950s, you probably remember how Sputnik shook America.
The year was 1957, and the Soviet Union sent the first man-made object into orbit. The 184-pound Sputnik circled the Earth 1,440 times and went, “Beep, beep, beep.” For almost a month, amateur radio operators could hear the chirping as Sputnik passed over the United States. The message it was sending was that the U.S. was behind in the space race.
American students were under pressure to respond. The federal government began spending a lot of money on education, hoping to raise more scientists and mathematicians.
The United States won the space race, but more than half a century after Sputnik focused attention on learning, America hasn’t won the education race.
The U.S. never ranks near the top in anyone’s global assessment of student performances. A study by Harvard University last year was typical. U.S. students ranked 14th in the world in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.
Something isn’t working, even though the education establishment has standardized tests galore, programs with impressive-sounding names and elaborate systems to grade schools.
Too bad more schools don’t have a program like the one at McGovern Elementary School in Winston.
The school and Roseburg-based Umpqua Watersheds are collaborating on two-hour science classes for sixth-graders on Fridays, a day the school does not hold classes.
An educational opportunity on Friday by itself is welcome. School districts adopting a four-day week to save money has not been a happy development.
The partnership between McGovern Elementary and Umpqua Watersheds has a cool name: Science Friday. Organizers could have given it a pretentious name or gotten cute and run the two words together, ScienceFriday. But they kept it basic.
As reported by News-Review staff writer Jessica Prokop on Sept. 26, the lessons are cool, too. Lots of stuff about atoms and molecules — the basics of science.
The classes are voluntary. It’s learning for learning’s sake. As one student remarked, what’s the harm in getting smarter?
Sixth grade seems to be a good level for Science Friday. Sixth-graders are old enough to think about the world and haven’t yet adopted the adult tendency to think scientific fact is flexible, depending on your politics.
Science Friday could be the start of something big for these kids. It’s a matter of some debate whether the United States really has a looming shortage of scientists and engineers. But surely it could stand to have more scientifically literate residents.
Yes, America rallied and beat the Soviets to the moon. But it trails a lot of countries in science and math proficiency. It needs to launch more Science Fridays.