Sitting at her desk in rapt attention, Lisa Klein was told that the Russians had launched a silvery, beach ball-size sphere hundreds of miles into orbit. It was the world’s first satellite, the first victory in the race to conquer space — and it had been won by the other side.
The satellite was called Sputnik, the man in the tie told his audience in sombre tones, and it was a sign that everyone needed to buckle down and get to work.
The speaker, a school district supervisor in Wilmington, was addressing a group of first graders at River Road Elementary School. Klein, not yet 6 years old, decided right then to become a scientist.
“It seemed to me that it was a personal invitation,” she recalled. “That was my job.”
Far beyond Klein’s classroom, the launch of Sputnik 50 years ago next month sparked an upheaval in how the United States approached space exploration and how its schools taught math and science.
The United States would proceed to catch up, of course, launching its own satellites and then, 12 years later, landing astronauts on the moon. Klein grew up to study lunar rocks from one of the Apollo missions before becoming the first female faculty member at Rutgers University’s engineering school, she said. Along the way, her education was fuelled by a programme that arose in direct response to Sputnik.
Today, amid a fast-shifting global economy, there are cries that once again the United States is behind, as measured by everything from test scores to technological advances. In 1966, 1 in 5 US bachelor’s degrees was awarded in math or science, according to federal education data; in 2004, that proportion had dropped to 1 in 6.
There are those who argue we need a jolt to the system. Another Sputnik.
The news on October 4, 1957, exploded with the force of a rocket blast.
Headlines blared for weeks about the “baby moon,” faintly ominous with its blank aluminium exterior and four slender antennae.
The Philadelphia Inquirer warned of a Propaganda Gain for Reds and A ‘Pearl Harbor’ Jolt to Smugness.
Some cautioned against overreacting to the smallish device, which weighed just 183 pounds. But many speculated that if the Communist nation could manage a satellite, it could launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.
A month later, the Soviets sent the heavier Sputnik II into space, this time with a live passenger: a dog named Laika.
The United States, already at work on its own Vanguard satellites, began the parallel Explorer programme. The following year, Congress and president Dwight Eisenhower created Nasa.
At River Road Elementary, the district science co-ordinator urged Mrs Conway’s first graders to study hard. Already interested in how things worked, Lisa Klein took the message seriously.
“All of us were now engaged in this process of keeping up with the Russians or beating the Russians,” she recalled.
Her parents, a dentist and a homemaker, encouraged her.
Soon, in addition to her Barbie doll, she had a new toy at home in Wilmington: a Cape Canaveral rocket set.
In 1968, she begged her parents to let her attend a six-week summer science camp at Brown University after 11th grade. Funded by the National Science Foundation as a direct result of Sputnik, it gave her the confidence to pursue science as a career.
Many engineering schools at the time did not accept women. One that did was Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Klein became one of about 70 women in a class of 1,000.
“There was a sense of invisibility,” Klein recalled, drily. “We were sort of too small a number to even be noticed.”
In a college internship, she studied lunar rocks that contained glass, a substance not often found in samples from Earth. She continued this work for her bachelor’s thesis and her PhD. After coming to Rutgers in 1977, she pursued further research on tektites and other glassy rocks.
Klein was among the first scientists to work with futuristic, low-density glasses that could be made at room temperature — ideal for use as scratch-proof coatings and sealants. Using this “sol-gel” process, her Piscataway, NJ, lab makes one kind of glass that is as light as cotton.
Klein is currently working on protective sol-gel coatings for the lithium batteries and other components that are crammed into today’s cell phones and other handheld gadgets.
“The idea is you can just pour it on,” she said.
Since she began her career, the number of female scientists and engineers has soared.
The number of Americans earning degrees in those fields has gone up as well, with the increase in population. But the percentage of people studying math and science in the US has slid.
Meanwhile in Asia, the number of people earning science or engineering degrees jumped 35% from 1990 to 2002, according to a National Science Foundation analysis.
The United States also has room for improvement on student tests. In a 2003 study of math and science achievement, directed by Boston College, US fourth and eighth graders scored above average among a group that included both developing and developed countries.
But on a different test called the PISA, which measures math and reasoning ability rather than the knowledge gained in school, 15-year-olds in the United States scored below average in a group of 30 industrialised countries.
Gauging changes since the 1950s is difficult, as the various tests are different and many more countries now take part, said Tom Loveless, an education-policy expert at the Brookings Institution.
But clearly, US students are not at the top now, nor were they at the top at the time of Sputnik.
“Because of our economic success and our military success in World War II, I think we just assumed that our educational system was the best in the world,” Loveless said. “That was just based on myth.”
Sputnik led to a surge in spending on education programmes such as the one Klein attended, and that continues today. In the 2004 fiscal year, 13 federal agencies spent $2.8 billion to encourage the pursuit of science and math careers, according to the Government Accountability Office. But there is little coordination among programmes, and only half have been formally evaluated, the GAO found.
For the woman who made science her mission because of Sputnik, there is reason for optimism. Klein notes that the United States swept the Nobel Prizes in the sciences last year, and she continues to be impressed by the students who pass through her lab.
“The quality of that group hasn’t really changed,” she said. “It’s still as good as ever.”
Yet she remains in the minority, as one of a dozen women on the 130-member Rutgers engineering faculty. She is the lone woman in the 24-member materials-science department.
For men and women alike, Klein said, a renewed national focus on science can only help. For her, 50 years ago, it made all the difference. —The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS