The following was written by cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, author of the widely acclaimed, The Sacred Depths of Nature, and is cross-posted from her February 10, 2011 NPR “13.7 Cosmos and Culture” blog, here. I’ve also written about importance of Big History, and highly recommended The Teaching Company course on the subject, here. And Bill Gates speaks about his enthusiasm for the same Big History course, here.

What a wonderful series of blog posts and comments this week on where we are in science education!

Picking up on this, I’d like to go back to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address where he spoke of our “Sputnik moment.” I’ll first revisit the original Sputnik moment in 1957, then compare it our current situation and finally offer some general thoughts on the role of science in our lives.

In the original Sputnik moment, nicely described here, the Soviets launched a 180-pound beeping object into a pre-determined orbit, quickly following with a >1,000-pound satellite carrying a dog and food for her 100-hour orbit. (She didn’t survive).

Meanwhile, the United States still hadn’t gotten its 3-lb. item off the pad. The result was pandemonium:

The Soviets will be “dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.” —Sen. Lyndon Johnson

“What is at stake is nothing less than our survival.” —Sen. Mike Mansfield

“A severe blow — some would say a disastrous blow — has been struck at America’s self-confidence and at her prestige in the world. Rarely have Americans questioned one another so intensely about our military position, our scientific stature, or our educational systems.” —Sen. Lister Hill

The response was the National Defense Education Act (note the D-word), pumping a billion dollars over four years (a lot back then) into student loans and science-classroom improvements.

Institutions like NASA were founded and the aeronautics industry was further buffed up. And we got the job done: first-man-to-the-moon 10 years later. We won the space race, the arms race and the Cold War. And then we drifted back into 40 years of generalized science-education apathy.

On the same day as Obama’s State of the Union, the National Assessment of Education Progress reported that only 1-2 American students out of every 100 displayed a level of science mastery defined as advanced, and only 21 percent of high-school seniors scored as proficient. How many senators were moved to hold press conferences saying that “a disastrous blow had been struck at America’s self-confidence and at her prestige in the world?” Crickets.

But Obama, at least, gave major attention to our current “Sputnik moment” in his speech:

Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. …

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. …

We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair. …

With so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.

Note that this time around, the Sputnik moment is being framed in an economic and not a military context, a far trickier war for the U.S. federal government to deploy.

It’s also far more vague, lacking a Red enemy and obvious goalposts. It was clear who got to the moon first, but whom are we trying to beat this time? The Chinese? The Indians? The Europeans? Each other? And how will we know who won?

Is an 8th grader going to be motivated to learn the names of the parts of a flower in order to improve his/her chances of a better berth in some distant global economy?

But let’s go ahead and imagine that there’s a big surge of interest in changing things. How is the current system going to be turned around, even with 100,000 new teachers? Blog commentator Jane Futzinfarb puts the situation well:

For as long as I remember, scientists and some others have been wringing their hands over why our schools generate vast swathes of graduates who neither understand nor value the principles and practice of science. I’ve witnessed a wide range of nostrums for this situation, from standardized testing, to hands-on-activities, from teaching using interdisciplinary themes, to taking science “out of the classroom”, from informal science teaching, to teacher workshops, and on and on, certainly ad nauseum and nearly ad infinitum. The bottom line is that I don’t believe any longer that there is a silver bullet. Perhaps the broader question …is why a society that is so deeply dependent on science and technology … is so deeply ambivalent (at best) and hostile (at worst) toward science and technology?

It’s easy to blame creationism and anti-evolutionism, and for sure they’re not irrelevant, but I think something else is going on.

I think that with all the emphasis on achievement, careers and competitiveness, science education has become — with notable bright spots to be sure — a joyless, alienating and frustrating experience for millions and millions of kids.

There are those science-fair-winner types and then there’s the rest of the class, not grooving on the material and hence, they find out, doomed to mediocre futures. Seems like ambivalence and hostility aren’t such surprising responses to such a message.

So do I have any nostrums to offer? Well, sure. As I blogged some months ago, I think things might go better if the narrative of our scientific understandings of nature — what some are calling “Big History” — were told early and often, capturing the interest and imagination of students from a young age. They might then be eager to learn the problem-solving, evidence-based process of scientific inquiry that has led to these understandings.

Such a narrative, of course, includes the narrative of biological evolution. But I believe that, as with gay marriage and other social issues, we’re poised to push past that barrier of prejudice if enough of us line ourselves up, lose our awkwardness and insist that this understanding become as central to the American worldview as it is in most parts of the planet.