Willoughby: How Sputnik and Lewis inspired Aspen to learn

From left to right, Gale Spence, Aspen Ski Club coach and partner of Aspen Sports and science teacher Bob Lewis, in front of Aspen High School in 1955. (Aspen Historical Society/Ringle Collection)

STEM is the modern-day mantra in the global competition for developing scientists. The Cold War had its equivalent, especially after Russia launched Sputnik, the first satellite in 1957. Science and math education became important topics nationally led by the National Science Foundation and Eisenhower’s signing of the 1958 National Defense Education Act. While Aspen was not scared about a Russian attack, it did join the quest to improve science education.

One of my memories of grade school was a school-wide science demonstration program where the visitors used liquid nitrogen to freeze a hot dog and then used it to pound a nail into a board. Checking The Aspen Times for that period it appears that the program, in 1958, was led by Ralph Redman from the Oak Ridge Traveling Science Demonstration Lecture Program. It was cosponsored by the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies and the National Science Foundation. The billing was to, “stimulate student interest in science and scientific careers.”

That was the same year that our elementary classrooms got terrariums and aquariums and kits for science experiments paid for by the PTA. The request was made by high school science teacher Bob Lewis. The junior high was given funds to build a telescope.

Lewis, who taught science in Aspen for much of the 1950s, spirited much of Aspen’s focus on improving science education. It began in 1957 when he was chosen as one of Aspen’s teachers to participate in the Rocky Mountain Area Project for Small High Schools. Aspen was one of five schools in Colorado to be part of the $104,000 grant. Many schools applied, but Aspen had an edge because Elbie Gann was the director of secondary education for the state at the time but had previously been superintendent in Aspen.

The next year Lewis was one of 100 teachers nation-wide to get a Massachusetts Institute of Technology fellowship, part of the National Science Foundation programs, for a summer of study at MIT. There, he and other science teachers worked to develop apparatus and methods for teaching physics. He had already built a wave tank for Aspen students. The group also worked on designing new physics textbooks.

What most who grew up in Aspen at the time remember was Lewis’ science lab. At that time the school, kindergarten through high school, was located in the Red Brick School. Those of us not in high school passed by the science lab going into and out of the school and on our way to the gym for P.E. or lunch. We would peek through the door as we passed by.

We also held our noses as we passed and sometimes even in our classrooms far from the science room. Lewis was a hands-on science teacher immersing his students in every experiment or project he could think of. High school students created a collection of “specimens” like worms stored in small jars of smelly formaldehyde. He acquired dead animals like birds and raccoons and they boiled off all the flesh leaving the bones and then fashioned skeleton displays. The science room shelves had every imaginable animal that could be found around Aspen.

The final touch that lasted beyond when the science room moved to a larger space constructed for a science lab with enough room for lab tables, were the murals on the walls. Lewis had students paint dinosaurs, and there may have been some constellations on the ceiling, but my memory is unclear on that.

For those of you who came to Aspen later you, would remember Lewis as the founder of another educational experiment, Wildwood preschool and his work in restoring the vegetation along Independence Pass.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at