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Hardware on the Shelf

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Fifty years ago tonight (I’m writing this on October 4th, although most of you won’t read it until a later date), the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit. Aside from the obvious and relatively well-known fact that Sputnik unleashed the Space Race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., you might like to know that it also launched efforts to increase academic challenge for American students.

America’s shock at being beaten to the punch, so to speak, by the Soviets manifested into concern that we weren’t challenging our students enough to reach levels of knowledge that would enable us to outpace the Soviets. The National Defense Education Act was passed ten months after Sputnik, in August of 1958, with the intended outcome of increasing the number and challenge level of science, mathematics, and foreign language courses in American schools, particularly for advanced students.

Two additional pieces of the Sputnik story that I love and that also relate to the education of gifted students involve Homer Hickam and Wernher von Braun. Dr. von Braun, although he had been a Nazi rocket scientist, had come to America and was working for our Army Ballistic Missile Agency. He was leading a group that had also been trying to launch a man-made satellite into orbit. Yet Dr. von Braun’s efforts (“Jupiter-C”) were delayed (despite some early successes) because another program (“Vanguard”) was deemed more worthy (despite its early failures).

It is reported that when learning of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik, von Braun said, “Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the shelf. For God’s sake, turn us loose and let us do something!” When I read that quotation earlier today, I was taken by how well it applies to gifted students. They just want to learn and we all-too-often are standing in their way. They have the hardware on the shelf! Turn them loose and let them do something with it!

Which is precisely what Miss Riley did for Homer Hickam and his friends.

Homer was a teenaged boy in Coalwood, West Virginia, the night that Sputnik was launched. Inspired by this amazing feat, he wanted to build his own rockets. Together with a few of his friends, he built a little rocket that only succeeded in destroying his mother’s picket fence. Yet undeterred, they continued to pursue their goal, making improvements along the way and researching the information they needed to increase their chances of success. Their teacher, Miss Riley, found out about their pursuits and helped them gain access to more advanced mathematics textbooks (so they could learn the formulas they would need to calculate amounts of needed materials, distance traveled, height, etc.) She also encouraged them to enter the Science Fair, which they did, and this ragamuffin bunch from a little coal-mining town actually won the National Science Fair. Homer went on to be a rocket scientist for NASA and has written many books about his experiences, most notably “Rocket Boys,” now sometimes titled “October Sky,” which is also the name of the movie that tells this inspiring story (I highly recommend both the book and the movie!)

Homer achieved what he did in life not only because he had the intelligence, talent, drive, and hard work ethic to get there, but also in part because a teacher refused to stand in his way.

“We have the hardware on the shelf. For God’s sake, turn us loose and let us do something!”

5 Comments

Hey, Tamara. I love reading your blogs. Hope everything is going well for you. Take care.

Tamara,
I remember much too well the launch of the Sputnik in 1957. I was in 8th grade and that weekend when it went up our local paper allocated 4" of print to it. I took the clipping to school for current events AND my teacher NEVER even called on me to share! NDEA inspired a number of my classmates to become teachers, and many of us are retired now.

I was just reading in the New York Times how politically Sputnik allowed the US to advance its own space program by promoting the fact that the US had to regain its lead in the world in order to maintain peace. An interesting historical and political viewpoint, and perhaps, WAY too true!

The article is at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/science/space/25sput.html

Hi, Anne! It's good to hear from you and I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. Hope to see you at NAGC! :o)

October Sky is listed on my blog as one of my favorite movies, and I showed it to all of my classes when I was teaching! One thing I like to ask students to do is pay attention to how many Auks failed before one finally flew. The rocket boys didn't quit just because it didn't work; they learned from their mistakes and fixed one problem at a time, learning at every step. That's how the "real world" works. Gifted students don't get to struggle through problems if the work is too easy, but I worry about most students in this respect. If other students perceive failure as proof that they are bad at a subject, it's too easy to give up and skip the struggle. When did success become something students perceive as instantaneous and binary - either you succeed or you fail?

Cheryl, Success became instantaneous and binary when we started teaching for self-esteem. When I was in teacher-training (late 80's), we were told never to let the kids think they weren't wonderful at everything. Everything they did was to be rewarded by a sticker and/or praise. One case study we were presented of a second-grade teacher who actually told her students what they needed work on drew gasps of horror from the assembled student teachers.

Her students were happy and productive, though, because not only did she tell them what skills they needed work on, but she taught them how to work on the skills to master them. Shock! Hers was the only classroom we were told about in two years of study that went against the positive self-esteeem dogma, though.

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