Sputnik 1 Launched A STEM Generation

Sputnik 1 Launched A STEM Generation.

October 1957, “The Sputnik Moment”, marks the pivotal year in careers of many contemporary Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics professionals. Educational opportunities abounded for first generation college students under federal grants and scholarships.

I am one such Sputnik beneficiary! Losing prestige to the Russians wasn’t newsworthy without television in every home, but the Eisenhower administration motivated educators at all levels. Within months, my small town high school’s math and science teachers became rock stars.

My first Sputnik memory was classical small town revelry: :

“Our annual “homecoming” carnival brought festivities up and down Main Street in October 1957. A Ferris wheel revolved outside my bedroom. The football game marching band mixed “Dixie” with John Paul Souza to rattle local windows. Post-game, band members ran home to exchanged itchy wool uniforms for light winter jackets. We ganged at the Wreck-a-car roped off charity area. The townies were determined to hammer the donated yellow Chevy to a pile of metal rubble.

Someone standing in line mentioned President Eisenhower’s radio acknowledgement of Earth’s first man-made satellite. Horrors, that thing was Russian, and the kids shouted “beep, beep, beep” in derision. Stepping from street lights into the dark, I scanned the skies for a glimpse of the beeping ball. Many other teenagers may also have been peering into space with hopes for a future beyond their small communities.

As high school graduation approached, word trickled from advisers about NSF-sponsored pre-college summer Institutes with on-campus science classes. Taking advantage, I met the era’s stand alone bi-quinary drum-memory IBM 650. A FORTRAN programming exercise forged my career-defining question: “how do I know this number summation program is correct?”.

The Sputnik Beep-beep-beep Brought the Internet.

Engineering trends blew other waves of change after Sputnik woke up Eisenhower’s administration. Within a decade, the early Arpanet emerged from post-war Rand Corporation and European counterparts. Or ,so goes a nuclear war networking myth. Another interpretation emphasized Arpanet fueled human-computer cooperation rather than solely military defense goals. Working with network pioneers overlooking a southern California marina would sweeten my life two decades later.

I majored in math at a liberal arts college. The National Science Foundation continued sponsoring institutes for high school teachers and students. A summer assistantship introduced me to “New Math” which 40 years later morphed into “Discrete Structures” covering logic, combinatorics, and automata. I’d found a math-based path away from calculus and differential equation, whew!

In those days before mathematics branched into computer science, I learned to learn piece-meal and to love programming. My senior project redesign Fortran and studied the assembly code distributed for the IBM 1620 variable word length digital memory computer. In the early 1960s, this liberal arts college provided my personal computer to program for hours while chapel bells and convocations rang through the above landmark campus building. I learned how to persist through the seemingly hopeless period when my program wouldn’t work, then to nurse it gradually toward functionality and as much correctness as I understood, efficiency be damned. This experience paid off in desk checking a graduate school assignment before submission to a mainframe with a four-day turn-around.

While tutoring “new math” for teachers, I offered a side show tour around the computing facility. What could I demonstrate in those days before graphic terminals? After loading a deck of cards into the gray box reader, all I could show was a hangman game on a typewriter-like terminal and the “Anchors Aweigh” rhythm on a rackety line printer. I was hooked as programmer, explainer, and promoter for a lifetime in computing. Alas, I chose the wrong dissertation topic and lost my chance to join the many “fathers” of the Internet.

Revisiting Sputnik Beyond 50 Years.

Late in my career,I participated in an intriguing panel celebrating Sputnik’s 50th anniversary. We asked: How would our national science enterprise have evolved if the U.S. had beaten Russia into space? Would we have the Internet? Where would your career have taken you?

Close as I can tell, both countries were working peacefully toward an International Geophysical Year mission reaching earth orbit. Eisenhower was hands-on, into U2 flights over Russia, and entranced with potential for satellite spying. His team even envisioned catching film dropping from orbiters in lieu of telemetry. Meantime, military inter-rivalry complicated decision making.

Russia went for the simpler 18 pound sphere emitting its boring beep-beep-beep. And the generation of students benefiting from Sputnik led to 2 decades of Arpa-funded network development under a wise research community leader who, sadly, wasn’t around to influence the forces of advertising and social media.

More recently, a lifelong learning class on “The Tumultuous Fifties” revealed to me that Sputnik had far less impact on many contemporaries. One with a college engineering professor father considered Sputnik a blip in history. Many who grew up in New York City traced steps toward influential East Coast communication and entertainment companies, especially that richly innovative Bell Labs. Maybe we in the hinterlands received the full boost from this moment.

Thank you, Sputnik! Let’s Exercise Our Memories.

so, international struggles sometimes tip our life patterns. We can only fully appreciate events, like the “Sputnik Crisis”, after imagining their absence.

Younger reader, try this exercise:
Find a retired engineer or scientist in their 70s. Ask about their memory from October 1957 into the 1960s. Did their high school science teachers or courses change after Sputnik? Did they receive scholarships or fellowships from NSF or newly minted government agencies NASA or ARPA? Was there a push or pull toward science, engineering, mathematics and technology, what we now call STEM? How well did women fit in?

Professionals of that era might find younger people who never connected the Internet with Sputnik nor knew where their fields got early funding. Your stories are welcome in our blog comments.

Everybody should remember the BEEP BEEP BEEP (YouTube mp3)!!!

References for the Sputnik STEM Generation.

Biographical Notes.

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