Mark McCaffrey's picture

I (Still) Like Ike

A few weeks ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists began its competition to find the most science-friendly President.

In the opening round of the playoffs, which had preselected eight out of the 44 US Presidents, Abe (Lincoln) went head to head with Ike (Dwight David Eisenhower).

Many of us here at NCSE assumed Abe would win the opening round and go on to win the playoffs.

But the winner, based on popular vote. proved to be Teddy Roosevelt, with Jimmy Carter as the first runner-up. Ike finished sixth, after Lincoln (who started the National Academy of Science) in third place, Ike's former VP Richard Nixon (who established the EPA and signed more environmental legislation than any president before or after) in fourth place, and George H. W. Bush (who helped broker the Montreal Protocol and under whose watch the Global Change Research Act was signed) running fifth. 

If the question had actually been "Who Did the Most for Science Education?" then the chances are John F. Kennedy (who finished last after Thomas Jefferson in this race) might have won for inspiring a generation to "shoot for the moon" and with his vision of a man on the moon helped set the stage for Star Trek, which in turn led to a galaxy of inventions and geeks.

But the "Golden Age" of science education, if ever there was one, was actually started and funded by Eisenhower. 

Everyone remembers Ike, right? The 34th President of the United States who, after serving in the First World War, went on to become a general and then the Supreme Allied Commander, overseeing the liberation of Europe in WWII. After the war he served as Military Governor in Germany and Army Chief of Staff, and then as NATO commander. He was briefly President of Columbia University, and then ran in 1952 for president.

Ike served two terms as the 34th President of the United States. His presidency was bracketed by two speeches, the first being the "Chance for Peace" speech in 1953, in which he declared:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

The second was his 1961 farewell address, which, although largely overlooked at the time, was one of the things he is most remembered for, particularly his warnings about the "military-industrial complex."

But some remember Ike for his concern about science education, which led to his signing the National Education Defense Act of 1958, which occurred during the deep freeze of the Cold War when thermonuclear bombs were being tested in places like Nevada

As the US Department of Education describes the history:

The Cold War stimulated the first example of comprehensive Federal education legislation, when in 1958 Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. To help ensure that highly trained individuals would be available to help America compete with the Soviet Union in scientific and technical fields, the NDEA included support for loans to college students, the improvement of science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction in elementary and secondary schools, graduate fellowships, foreign language and area studies, and vocational-technical training.

The NDEA helped to maximize the educational opportunities around the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, which included booklets and posters as well as educational films, some of which touched on potential human impacts on the climate system through the burning of fossil fuels. 

Although the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 is often cited as the reason for the Act and the related National Aeronautics and Space Act (establishing NASA), what is usually forgotten is Sputnik—and US satellites sent into orbit months thereafter—were part of the loosely coordinated efforts of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) to encourage scientific collaboration and cooperation in studying the planet. 

The National Defense Education Act wasn't without its issues. Initially, some colleges and universities protested the clause requiring that all beneficiaries of the act complete an affidavit disclaiming belief in the overthrow of the U.S. government, but that requirement was repealed by President Kennedy in 1962. An evaluation of the effort conducted in the late 1960s concluded:

...this program was successful in bringing new researchers into the educational media field, upgrading the quality of research, and encouraging the growth of academic programs in educational media. It also promoted the application of the systems approach, the development of individualized instruction, and teacher acceptance of media. 

There have been numerous efforts to reboot science education over the years, including Science for All Americans in the late 1980s, the National Science Education Standards of the mid 1990s, which led to the hodge-podge of state science standards, and most recently the NRC K-12 Framework for Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards. There have also been a long line of reports and initiatives warning of the dire consequences facing the nation if we don't get our proverbial act together and make science education the priority it was half a century ago.

Efforts like 100K in 10, which aims to train 100,000 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Teachers in ten years, and the National Science and Mathematics Initiative, supported by Exxon Mobil, are all worthy and well-intended efforts. But we might ask: toward what end? What makes science education relevant and important in the 21st century?  Can't we just outsource our science to China and India, as we've done with so much of our manufacturing and technical know-how? 

Other than the general "mom and apple pie" reasons for wanting to improve science education (like "preparing for the workforce of tomorrow" and "competing in the global marketplace"), why might we want young people to be science-savvy? 

I can think of a few compelling reasons. What about you?