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Why I Hate To Teach Photosynthesis
While you’re at it, throw in cellular respiration as well. But don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate photosynthesis or cellular respiration. What kind of biology teacher would you be if you hated the two most important energy processes in living things? Without photosynthesis life as we know it on Mother Earth would not exist.
What I, and many of my peers, do not like is teaching these two processes in the great amount of detail that we have to do, which is required by the current state standards. I’m risking the wrath of every biology teacher in the world by saying this, but really, do high school kids need 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. In fact, I’d be delighted if I could get the kids to spell it correctly.
This is just one example of how far we are from teaching science that is of real benefit to our children. Teaching photosynthesis and cellular respiration is like giving children barbiturates. They’re all glassy-eyed and sleepy and just out there. And I finally figured out who to blame for all of 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 their rockets that allowed us to reach 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 1957. It was the month that the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite. A shocked America gasped as little Sputnik sounded over the US 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 Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet prime minister at the time, took advantage of the political event to embarrass the United States and vowed to “bury us” with superior Soviet technology.
How could the Soviets beat us, America, in space? Who was to blame for this embarrassment to American prestige, know-how and pride? Someone 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 right?
So the “blame” for the failed achievement of American technology fell on poor scientific education. Why not. If Soviet scientists and engineers could launch a satellite, and we couldn’t, then logically their scientists and engineers were better educated. But the focus should have been on America’s technical know-how to launch a satellite into outer space, not the perception of how bad our schools were.
The success of the Soviet launch of Sputnik was not an American educational failure. We came out of World War II as the strongest country in the world by all accounts. It was the strength of economy, industry, scientific research, and the great body of well-educated people that led to our final 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? Have we suddenly become stupid? Didn’t all the returning veterans, many of whom took advantage of the new GI Bill and earned college degrees, take advantage of their education? Remember, it is this group of men and women that American companies hired in the late 1940s and 1950s to boost the American economy and pull Europe out of the ashes of World War II.
The key historical point that led to the Soviet success in 1957 was the development of Nazi Germany’s rocket program in the 1930s. A program that was led by none other than Dr. Werner von Braun. von Braun’s group designed the dreaded V1 and V2 rockets that brought terror to England in the final days of the war. As the Nazi regime collapsed, the Soviets and Allies saw the potential to capture not only von Braun and his entire workforce, but the rockets themselves. Unlike von Braun, both sides understood the potential these rockets presented as military weapons, not 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 major effort was made to track down and capture von Braun and his operation. von Braun knew his fate in Soviet hands and in a story of bravery, and basically treachery, he and his core group of engineers made their way into Allied-occupied territory and surrendered. When the war ended, the Allies not only had the key engineers, but the plans and parts for many operational rockets in their possession. The Soviets were also successful, but they didn’t have what we had, von Braun. The West did not know how much the Soviets captured. 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 moved to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal outside Huntsville, Alabama. Through much 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 of a rocket that could launch a man into space.
With the Army, Navy, and Air Force competing for limited military funding, it’s no wonder that no centralized effort has been made to develop a true ICBM. The only man who could do it, who had the experience to do it, as well as the engineering knowledge to do it, was former Nazi Werner von Braun. In the 1950s, with Senator Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare creating hysteria by finding communists behind every light pole and bush in America, to have a former Nazi developing our missile defenses, let alone a manned space vehicle , would not have played well with American sensibilities.
The Soviets, on the other hand, had a concrete plan. And they spent a lot of money on rocket research and development to implement the plan. We had neither the plan nor the desire to spend the money to develop our own rocket program. Was it the fault of the bad schools? Or was it a political decision? von Braun went to great lengths to try to convince the government that he could launch a space vehicle. But the US government didn’t see the need. They didn’t say we couldn’t do this because our kids were underprepared in science and math. They did not say that our schools were a failure and needed to be reformed before taking on this challenge. They also didn’t say we didn’t have the industrial capacity to do the job. They just didn’t see the point of spending all that money just to launch an artificial satellite. A purely political decision based on underestimating the capability 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 major science education reform movement administered through the National Science Foundation.
Overall, this was not a bad thing for science education. Did science education need reform? By all indications, the answer is yes. But without some encouragement, it wouldn’t happen on its own or quickly. As a result of this new source of funding, a number of excellent science programs were implemented that were developed in the 1950s. Programs such as Physical Science Studies Curriculum (PSSC), ChemStudy and Biological Sciences Curriculum Studies (BSCSC ) became popular and approached science teaching using an inquiry method. The philosophy behind these programs is to expose students to how science is actually done through first-hand experience.
Interestingly, these programs were not developed by educators, but by actual scientists. People who had a blank slate to design their “dream” science program. They had a keen interest in keeping science alive in classrooms. They knew that federal funding for research programs depended on educating the generation that would eventually replace them in America’s laboratories.
This seemingly minor point is often overlooked when you examine the why of what we teach in science. These newly developed curricula were and still are excellent. But its main reason for development was self-service. They were designed by scientists who believed that science should be constantly in the public eye, that science was necessary for a strong economy and nation. They felt that their source of government funding could very well be in jeopardy if Americans lost interest in science and research. They wanted to expose as many children to as much science as they could in the hope that many would pursue careers in scientific research.
In those days, the foundations of what we teach and why in science classrooms were established. And every assessment of the new science curricula is measured against these early “standards.” But do these assessments raise questions about real need? Are questions asked about what Americans really need to know about science? They are, of course, but not with the answers we think are relevant.
How much detailed science does the average American really need to make sound, reasoned decisions about national science policies? Is it important to teach such a large amount of science and lose true understanding? Or is teaching a smaller amount with a deeper understanding better. Is it better to have people who might remember the processes of photosynthesis, or is it better to understand the importance of photosynthesis to life on the planet?
We could have launched a satellite before the Soviets. The answer is definitely yes. If we had, if someone had given von Braun the go-ahead to continue with his development of a rocket, think how different everything might have been. There may not have been a “space race” or the massive educational reforms we experienced. And maybe, just maybe, me and all my colleagues wouldn’t be pulling our hair out trying to get kids to understand what glucose-6 phosphatase is.
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