Science education and the Great American Eclipse

By Charles Fulco

As a science teacher, it  continually frustrates me to see what teaching and learning has evolved to in the US. Current educational lingo comprises terms like "Common Core," "Next Generation Science Standards," and "Flipped Classroom," and although I have been teaching to these goals for the past several years, I'm still not quite sure about where this is all going. Do we really need 27 different ways (no lie!) to teach ratios? Are shortcuts to deriving an answer really bad? Does every math answer need to be in the form of an extended ELA response? Is "6 r2" more descriptive than writing "6 1/3"? Has the learning pendulum finally swung too far?

"Every year it gets worse" is what I and other teachers say, and very few will argue that point. Students seem more distracted, teachers more frustrated, administrators more cow-towing, and parents angrier at the whole system than ever before.

In 1957 the world celebrated the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the goal being a renewed understanding of, and interest in the natural world. This coincided with the launch of Sputnik and the formation of NASA one year later. It was the age of atomic submarines and passenger jets, of microwaves and videophones. We were watching the Jetsons. In the short dozen years from 1957 to 1969, we went from small boosters exploding on launch pads to the behemoth Saturn V taking Armstrong and Aldrin to their first steps on the Moon. And during this time many products were invented that we now can't imagine living without. And at the foundation of this greatest decade of achievement was what the astronauts called "Go Fever"--the belief that no goal was too unreachable, no idea too far-fetched. The self-fulfilling prophesy kicked in. 

As a child and student in elementary school, I felt this national confidence as well, when our teachers would take us from class into the auditorium or cafeteria to watch a liftoff or splashdown, or when my mother let me stay home from school to watch an Apollo EVA on TV. Or when we were actually shown by our scoutmaster how to make an eclipse viewer so we could watch the 1970 eclipse outdoors and not on television. All of those events were touchstones for me, and remain the main reasons I fell in love with the natural sciences, especially astronomy.

How many students can say this today? Are there any similar events now that inspire our young learners to achieve great things? Is there an Apollo moonwalk for this generation? An IGY? I say yes, there is: The Great American Eclipse of 2017. I have every hope that it will do for today's students what those awe-inspiring events did for me many years ago. And now the challenge for me as an educator is to make sure that happens.