‘A Highly Selected Strain of Guinea Pigs’: The Westinghouse Science Talent Search and Educational Meritocracy, 1942–1958
by Sevan G. Terzian & John L. Rury — 2014
Overview: This article examines the Westinghouse Science Talent Search over the first sixteen years of its operation. A national contest involving thousands of high school seniors annually, it reflected a growing national concern with developing scientific manpower in the midst of global conflict, the Cold War, and a growing military–industrial complex.
Background/Context: While there have been recent studies on the historical development of science education, particularly in the mid-twentieth century and immediate postwar era, little attention has been devoted to such extracurricular activities as science fairs and academic contests. This study addresses this gap by examining a prominent national talent search competition, while assessing its place in the development of a meritocratic ethos in science.
Focus of Study: The study describes the genesis of the Science Talent Search, its approach to identifying winners, and the inequitable impact of this approach. Although the competition’s organizers emphasized its meritocratic quality, our analysis demonstrates that the selection process that it employed systematically discriminated against certain groups of students.
Research Design: The study was conducted by historical research in primary and secondary sources, particularly those associated with the Science Talent Search in the first two decades of its existence. Statistical data also were compiled from Science Talent Search records and combined with data from the U.S. Office of Education and the Census Bureau to conduct an analysis of factors contributing to success in the contest.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Most Science Talent Search winners over the period in question were White males from large urban schools with greater financial resources. Women and African American students were underrepresented, as were students from rural areas and schools with relatively few resources. Ultimately, this national competition reflected social and cultural forces that shaped the science professions in a crucial period of their growth, and may have represented a lost opportunity to make scientific training more truly meritocratic at a formative time in its development.
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