While you’re at it, add cellular respiration to that also. But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t hate photosynthesis or cellular respiration. What kind of a biology teacher would I be if I went around hating the two most important energy processes of living things? Without photosynthesis life as we know it on Mother Earth would not exist.

What I, and many of my colleagues, don’t like is teaching these two processes in the great amount of detail that we have to, which is mandated by state standards today. I’m risking bringing down the wrath of every biology teacher in the world by saying this, but really, do high school kids actually have to know what glucose-6 phosphatase is and what it does? Come on. How many times have any of you reading this been asked what glucose-6 phosphatase is at a dinner party? I thought so. Actually, I’d be ecstatic if I could get the kids to just spell it correctly.

This is just an example of how far away we are in teaching science that is of any true benefit to our kids. Teaching photosynthesis and cellular respiration is like administering barbiturates to the kids. They get all glassy-eyed and sleepy and just plain zone out. And I’ve finally figured out who to blame for all this. I blame Dr. Werner von Braun.

Dr. von Braun was America’s preeminent rocket engineer during the heady days of our space program. It was the design and engineering of his rockets that allowed us to get to the moon. So how do I blame America’s most famous rocket engineer, a former Nazi by the way, for the way we teach photosynthesis?

The history of all this madness can be traced back to a single event in October of 1957. That was month that the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite. A shocked America gasped as the tiny Sputnik beeped overhead the U.S. every night. And every night it was a reminder that we were “behind” the Soviets in technology. Or at least that’s the perception we were led to believe. Even a very surprised Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier at the time, took political advantage of the event to embarrass the United States and promised to “bury” us in superior Soviet technology.

How could the Soviets beat us, America, into space? Who was to blame for this embarrassment to American prestige, knowhow and pride? Somebody was to blame. Someone had to be blamed. Isn’t that what politicians do, blame someone for our shortcomings? How else could our arch enemy be better than us if someone didn’t do their job properly?

So the “blame” for the failing achievement of American technology fell on bad science education. Why not. If Soviet scientists and engineers could launch a satellite, and we didn’t, then logically their scientists and engineers were better educated. But the focus should have been on America’s technical knowhow to launch a satellite into outer space not on the perception of how bad our schools were.

The success of the Soviet launch of Sputnik was not an American educational failure. We emerged from World War Two as the strongest country in the world by all accounts. It was the strength of the American economy, industry, scientific research, and the large pool of well educated people that led to our eventual victory. And with that strength we went from a sleepy, politically isolated nation to the leader of the free world. It was American ingenuity and inventiveness that produced the machinery to win the war.

So what happened between 1945 and 1957? Did we all of a sudden get stupid? Did all of the returning veterans, many of whom took advantage of the new G.I. Bill and got college degrees, not take advantage of their education? Remember, it’s this pool of men and women that American businesses hired in the late 1940’s and 1950’s to propel the American economy a pull Europe out of the ashes of the Second World War.

The key historical point that led to the Soviet success in 1957 was the development of Nazi Germany’s rocket program in the 1930’s. A program that was led by none other than Dr. Werner von Braun. von Braun’s group designed the feared V1 and V2 rockets that brought terror to England in the closing days of the war. As the Nazi regime crumbled, the Soviets and the Allies saw the potential in capturing not only von Braun and his entire workforce, but the rockets themselves. Unlike von Braun, both sides understood the potential these rockets posed as military weapons, not as space vehicles. von Braun always saw his designs taking Man into outer space.

As the Soviets closed in on Nazi Germany from the East and the Allies from the West, a great effort was made to locate and capture von Braun and his operation. von Braun knew what his fate would be in Soviet hands and in a tale of courage, and basically treason, he and his core group of engineers made their way to Allied occupied territory and surrendered. By the time the war ended the Allies not only had the key engineers, but the plans and parts of many operational rockets in their possession. The Soviets too were successful, but they didn’t have what we had, von Braun. How much the Soviets captured was unknown to the West. Until 1957 that is.

von Braun and his group were quickly evacuated from Europe and sent to a camp in New Mexico, as prisoners of war, where they were held incommunicado for many years. We didn’t bring him here to develop a rocket program, as von Braun originally thought. Politically and militarily we didn’t need rockets. We had the ultimate weapon. We had The Bomb. We brought him here to keep him out of the hands of the Soviets.

In 1950, von Braun’s group was moved to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal outside of Huntsville, Alabama. Through a lot of political maneuvering, they lost their “prisoner” status and were allowed to work with the Army to develop strategic missiles. But von Braun never lost sight of the stars and already had the basic design work for a rocket that could launch a man into space worked out.

With the Army, Navy, and Air Force all competing for limited military funding, it’s no wonder there wasn’t any centralized effort made to develop a true ICBM. The one man who could do it, who had the experience to do it, as well as the engineering knowhow to do it was the former Nazi, Werner von Braun. In the 1950’s with Senator Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare creating hysteria at finding communists behind every light pole and shrub in America, having a former Nazi developing our defense missiles, much less a manned space vehicle, would not have played well with American sensibilities.

The Soviets, on the other hand, had a specific plan. And they spent a great deal of money on rocket research and development to implement the plan. We had neither a plan nor the desire to spend the money to develop our own rocket program. Was this the fault of bad schools? Or was it a political decision? von Braun made a great effort trying to convince the government that he could launch a space vehicle. But the U.S. government didn’t see the need. They didn’t say that we couldn’t do this because our kids were ill prepared in science and math. They didn’t say that our schools were a failure and we needed to reform them before we could take on such a challenge. Nor did they say that we didn’t have the industrial capacity to undertake the task. They just plain didn’t see the usefulness in spending all that money just to launch an artificial satellite. A purely political decision based on under-estimating the ability of the Soviets.

Sputnik changed everything. Now we had the “need”. We were threatened by the apparent superiority of Soviet science, technology and education. Almost overnight millions of dollars were allocated to fund the first great science education reform movement administered through the National Science Foundation.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad thing for science education. Did science education need reform? By all indications, the answer is yes. But without some stimulus, it wasn’t going to happen on its own or quickly. A number of excellent science programs that were developed in the 1950’s were implemented as a result of this new source of funding. Programs like the Physical Science Studies Curriculum (PSSC), ChemStudy and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Studies (BSCS) became popular and approached science teaching through a method of inquiry. The philosophy behind these programs is to expose students to how science is really done through first-hand experience.

Curiously these programs were not developed by educators, but real scientists. People who had a blank slate to design their “dream” science program. They had a vested interest in keeping science alive in the classrooms. They knew that federal funding of research programs depended on the education of the generation who would eventually replace them in the labs around the U.S.

This seemingly minor point is often overlooked when you examine the why’s of what we teach in science. These newly developed curricula were excellent and still are. But their primary reason for development was self serving. They were designed by scientists who felt that science needed to be constantly in the public eye, that science was necessary for a strong economy and nation. They felt that their source of funding from the government could very well be in jeopardy if Americans lost interest in science and research. They wanted to expose as many kids to as much science as they could in the hopes that many wold pursue a career in scientific research.

The foundations of what we teach and why in science classrooms were laid down in those days. And every evaluation of new science curricula is measured against those early “standards”. But in these evaluations are questions about real necessity asked? Are questions about what Americans really need to know about science asked? They are, of course, but not with the answers that we think are relevant.

How much detailed science does the average American really need in order to make sound, reasoned decisions about national science policies? Is it important to teach such a massive amount of science and losing true understanding? Or is teaching a lesser amount with deeper understanding better. Is it better to have people who maybe remember the processes of photosynthesis, or is it better to understand the significance of photosynthesis to life on the planet?

Could we have launched a satellite before the Soviets. The answer is most definitely yes. Had we done that, had someone given the go ahead to von Braun to proceed with his development of a rocket, think how much different everything could have been. There may have not been a “space race” or the massive education reforms we experienced. And maybe, just maybe, I and all my colleagues wouldn’t be pulling our hair out trying to get the kids to understand what glucose-6 phosphatase is.

Leave a Reply