Hardware on the Shelf
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!”