The Inspiration of Space Exploration

October has been a whirlwind month for NASA Education and for me personally.  In addition to our ongoing education programs and activities, NASA was the host of the 2011 International Space Education Board (ISEB), which is held annually in conjunction with the International Astronautical Congress (IAC).  I was proud to lead the NASA education team in this effort, which took place in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa.

Though I was relatively new to this arena, I was immediately welcomed into the ISEB family and was overwhelmed by their kindness, encouragement and assistance in making all of our events an immense success.

There are many reasons why I truly appreciated the opportunity to be a part of this year’s IAC, but one stands out in particular.  In 2008 and 2009, I had the privilege of traveling to space aboard the shuttle Atlantis on STS-122 and STS-129, respectively.  Both times we docked with the International Space Station and as we orbited the Earth, I saw no borders; I couldn’t distinguish one country from another. That wonderful vantage point gave me a new perspective on this planet and its people. It also shaped my approach to education: the need for us to work together as one cohesive body to prepare our children to become future leaders who can study, learn, communicate, and collaborate in a global environment.

The goals of the ISEB are to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) literacy and achievement in connection with space and to support the future workforce needs of space programs. With the recent debut of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), we had the opportunity to utilize the combined resources of the ISEB to make a sustained and lasting impact on the South African space community and bring awareness of the benefits of space exploration to an entirely new audience.  This year’s theme for the ISEB education and outreach effort was, “You are the World’s Future in Space.”  We extended this theme to reach not only our Space Ambassadors, but also educators and learners from across South Africa.

Just as the IAC provided an international forum to share knowledge and passion for space, the ISEB International Student Zone fostered dialogue and connections among a diverse group of talented students. As I watched them eloquently present their research, celebrate their individual cultures, and network with each other, I saw what they are destined to become: the next generation of space leaders. I am absolutely sure that by the end of the week, lifelong friendships were created that will extend beyond political and language barriers. 

Through the IAC Space Education and Outreach Committee’s professional development workshop that was led by the Canadian Space Agency, educators gained the knowledge, tools and confidence required to bring space into their classrooms. Educators came from all over South Africa to attend, some traveling over 1400 km (85 miles). By the end of an exciting two days, they had been immersed in hands-on, inquiry-based activities related to astronomy, exploration, Earth observation and the effects of space flight on the human body. The resources and training they obtained will be used to educate the learners of South Africa for years to come. 

The week culminated with a blast, as we hosted 400 learners from the Western Cape for hands-on activities that introduced them to key space-related concepts like renewable energy, astronomy and robotics. The event exposed the learners to a wide variety of possible space careers, from engineering and scientific research to communication and policy making. The Iziko Museum of Cape Town and the LEGO Foundation brought local flavor to the event and provided a rich experience for the learners as well as potential for ongoing follow-on activities. It was a memorable day for not only the 8th grade learners attending but also for the Space Ambassadors who led the activities. I believe that there are few rewards in life greater than that of a smile on a child’s face, and on Friday I saw literally hundreds of smiles – on the learners, Space Ambassadors and ISEB leaders and staff.  

Space really is a universal, galvanizing force for inspiring creativity, dreams and bright futures for today’s students. Moving forward, I am excited about the challenge to continue improving the lives of students here in the U.S., but also around world.  I enjoyed the time spent with this amazing international space education family.  I think our unified efforts will lead to a robust, collaborative space community in the future.

Ad astra,