Reflecting on Sputnik:  Linking the Past, Present, and Future of Educational Reform
A symposium hosted by the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education

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Thomas T. Liao
Program in Technology and Society
State University of New York at Stonybrook

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center or the National Research Council. The paper has not been reviewed by the National Research Council.

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Current Paper Sections Introduction
1st Decade
2nd Decade
3rd Decade
4th Decade
Lessons Learned

J. Myron Atkin
Rodger W. Bybee
George Deboer
Peter Dow
Marye Anne Fox
John Goodlad
Jeremy Kilpatrick
Glenda T. Lappan
(Thomas T. Liao)
F. James Rutherford


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Introduction: Confessions of a NSF Junkie

To reflect on one’s professional career is at best a daunting exercise. In my case, the task is simplified because of one common trend: involvement in NSF sponsored projects. In the past thirty-four years, I have had the good fortune of being directly involved in NSF sponsored curriculum development and teacher enhancement projects for thirty of those years.

In the Fall of 1957, I was a freshman at Brooklyn College, majoring in Physics. Thus, my high school Physics courses were not influenced by the post Sputnik educational reform efforts. In one sense, this may have been a blessing because if I had taken the PSSC [Physical Science Study Committee] Physics course at Stuyvesant High School, I may not have become a Physics major. The reasons for this comment will become more evident when I discuss my experiences as a teacher of the PSSC Physics course.

My professional career as a science teacher was first affected by NSF sponsored projects in 1963 when I attended a summer institute in Physics that was part of an NSF funded three-year program that resulted in a Masters Degree. The next year I was assigned to teach the newly developed PSSC Physics course at Brooklyn Technical High School. Since 1963, except for a few short time periods between projects, I have benefitted from involvement both as a participant and staff of NSF sponsored projects.

This paper will provide a personal account of my journey from being a teacher of the PSSC Physics course in 1964 to my current role as a Co-PI of a NSF supported teacher enhancement project designed to help elementary teachers to integrate the study of Mathematics, Science, and Technology [MSTe]. Each of the past four decades has provided unique educational reform challenges. I will reflect on the challenges from the perspective of the important lessons learned that can be used to guide today’s reform efforts. I will also reflect on the value of NSF sponsored projects in the professional development of young teachers.

1st Decade [1957-1966]: The Physics Education Years

Preparing and teaching the PSSC course helped me to develop a much deeper understanding of the processes and major concepts of Physics. However, only the future scientists in my PSSC class found the course to be interesting and meaningful. Most of the students, even at a magnet high school such as Brooklyn Technical High School needed to study Physics in which concepts are learned in the context of real world examples and in a learning environment that provides opportunities for student construction of their own understandings.

The PSSC course lacked both of the above curriculum and instruction features. Thus, if I had taken the course as a student at Stuyvesant High School, I might not have elected to be a Physics major. My encounter with Physics and Electronics courses in the mid 1950s was filled with real world applications. In fact my Physics teacher, Dr. Myers worked part-time at Bell Labs and often discussed the applications of the Physics concepts that we were studying.

Given my early interest in applied Physics, I probably would have majored in Engineering except for the positive experiences that I had in my high school Physics classes. My opportunity to study Engineering finally occurred at the end of the first decade. The watershed year of my teaching career was 1966, when I was invited to be a pilot teacher for the new ECCP [Engineering Concepts Curriculum Project] course that was entitled “The Man-Made World”[TMMW]. During the Spring of 1966, I had a very difficult decision about how best to develop myself professionally. Besides the ECCP invitation to attend a six-week summer institute in Boulder, Colorado, I also had invitations to attend two other NSF sponsored summer workshops. The deciding factor was the opportunity to learn about the emerging information technologies and to teach a new course dealing with engineering concepts.

2nd Decade [1967-1976]: The ECCP Years

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