The Space Race's Impact on Math & Science Education in the U.S.

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  • 0:03 Sputnik
  • 1:45 The Space Race
  • 3:45 STEM Education
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

During the Cold War, America and Russia tried to outdo each other with regards to space exploration. In this lesson, we'll look at the launch of Sputnik and the Space Race's effect on science and math education in American public schools.


On October 4, 1957, Americans woke up to alarming news. Sputnik had been launched. In the fall of 1957, America was involved in the Cold War, a political standoff between Russia and the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century. During that time, the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. battled each other with words and threats but didn't actually engage in warfare involving guns, bombs, or other types of ammunition.

But there was a hostile feeling between the two countries and deep mistrust. Which is why, on that crisp morning in October 1957, Americans were alarmed to hear that the Russians had launched Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit Earth. The Russians had figured out how to send something into space, and it wouldn't be long before other things joined Sputnik.

To Americans, the launch of Sputnik was scary because they weren't sure what it meant. Could it be the first step in a new war plan? Could the Russians be using Sputnik to plan where to drop a bomb?

At the very least, the fact that the Russians had launched something into space, while the U.S. still didn't have that capability, meant that the Russians were winning a propaganda war, demonstrating that they were smarter and more advanced than Americans.

More than Sputnik launched that day in 1957. So did the infamous Space Race between America and Russia. Let's look at the Space Race and its long-term effects on American education.

The Space Race

It might seem a little difficult to understand now, but imagine the impact of Sputnik on Americans in the late 1950s. To do so, imagine that you live in a world where your country's enemy is building up nuclear weapons at an alarming rate. In schools across the country, children are taught how to 'duck and cover' below their desks in case a bomb is dropped.

Both sides, America and Russia, were building up bombs and other weapons during the years after World War II. As hostilities and threats flew between the countries, people on both sides were terrified of what the other side might do. Nuclear war never seemed so close and so possible.

That's why Sputnik had such an impact on Americans. To them, seeing the Russians launch something into space (a feat that had never been done before) signaled that the Russians were that much closer to a new, technology-based warfare. There were no satellites at that point and no way of pinpointing where to drop bombs. Things that we take for granted these days had never been heard of back then.

Was Sputnik part of a diabolical plan to annihilate the U.S.? No. But it did signal to Americans that they were behind the Russians. Both national security and national pride was on the line: would the Americans just sit by and let the Russians take over space?

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