NASA and Education


            As the son of an elementary teacher and the father of a secondary school teacher, I have learned a few things about education.  For example, if you were to ask any teacher at any level what is the most important tool to have to facilitate learning and they will give you the same answer.  Sometimes the words are slightly different but it amounts to the same answer:  the interest, inspiration, and enthusiasm of the students for the subject.  With that, you can teach almost anything with minimal, even primitive equipment and facilities.  Without interest, enthusiasm, and inspiration, all the high tech, modern, fancy equipment and facilities are virtually useless.


            The exploration of space has a long history of inspiring students to study science, engineering, mathematics, and other technical subjects.  The exploration of space has inspired poets, artists, and novelists.  Almost the entire spectrum of human activity and interest has at one time or another been sparked by the exploration of space. 


            I recently watched a middle school class on a field trip to a NASA display.  They were totally entranced.  Middle school is a hard age to capture.  These kids were spellbound.  They were ready to sign on:  astronaut, flight director, chief scientist, whatever.  Dinosaurs and space continue to capture the interest of our young people. 


“The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers– just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians– by right of birth” – Jules Verne, “From the Earth to the Moon” , 1865.  That was the 19th century view.  In the 21st century, engineering (like music and theology) has become a worldwide theme.  America is not the only nation to provide engineers.



            Education is one of the most important topics to Americans.  As a nation we devote huge resources to educating our children, local school boards and state government last year spent over $800 billion on education.  At the federal level, the Department of Education’s budget last year was just over $57 billion.  This represents substantially more money than the nation spent on national defense in all its aspects including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, national intelligence, and the department of homeland security.


            In fact, the national average secondary schooling expenditure per child in the United States is third in the world, behind only Switzerland and Finland and well ahead of Germany, Japan, South Korea, and China. 


Yet, by all objective measures, American students are significantly lagging in almost every area to their foreign counterparts.  Math, Science, even language testing scores lag significantly behind other modern industrialized nations.


Equally troubling is the decline in college graduates in engineering, mathematics, and science.  Over the last decade there has been a steady decay of graduates in these fields so that compared with the previous decade, the United States has 100,000 fewer graduates in these fields.  Compared with other countries we are doing even worse.  When normalized to the population of the country, every industrialized modern nation graduates more science, engineering, and mathematics students than the United States.  Our biggest economic competitors are graduating the most:  China, Japan, India, South Korea.  American innovation and creativity has long been the fire that stoked the engine of our economy.  As we graduate fewer people who have the wherewithal to create new products and services, America can only expect economic decline.


            So what are we to do about this as a nation?  History can provide some relevance.  During the 20th century, there were two significant periods of growth in the training of American engineers, mathematicians, and scientists.  The first was World War II and its immediate aftermath.  Certainly we would rather not expand our capability based on a war, and the circumstances of the GI bill may not be applicable.  The other period of expansion was shortly after Sputnik and the decline started with the end of Apollo.  Is there a lesson here?


            Several prominent writers have argued that the Space Race of the 1960’s provided an alternative to war in the competition between nations.  Certainly there were wars in the 1960’s, most notably in Vietnam.  However, the two super powers of the period were able to compete in the peaceful exploration of space in a way that provided a way to enhance national pride, demonstrate technical and social prowess to the other nations of the world, and in fact inspire young people to pursue careers in technical fields.


            Clearly, today, simply throwing more money at education will not be a panacea.  This is not to say that there are not areas where increased funding could improve some niches.  But overall, we need a different strategy.


            To reiterate:  what is the one most important ingredient in teaching?  Technology such as computers is important.  Facilities are important.  Good teacher preparation is important.  But if you really want students to learn, they must be interested; more than that students must be excited, they must be inspired.


            We need inspiration. 


            NASA is not the Department of Education.  Our charter does not include responsibility for national education.  Nor does our budget provide very much in the way of teacher aids.  NASA’s charter requires us to “inform the nation of our . . . .progress” and a very small division of the public affairs office provides educational material which can be used for classes to explore topics that NASA is directly related to.  In a more significant way, NASA each year spends a significant sum on research grants to universities which in turn provide support for graduate students and researchers.  These grants are funded because there are specific products that NASA needs to carry out our missions.  Research grants have the happy by-product of providing funds for graduate and undergraduate support.  But all of NASA’s education related spending – direct and indirect – is a drop in the bucket of national education spending.


            What NASA has provided in the past, NASA can provide again:  inspiration.


            Many have complained that the International Space Station and Shuttle programs have not been inspirational.  Personally, I would challenge that premise.  But for a moment, lets accept it.  What would be inspirational?  How about the exploration of the solar system?  First, outposts on the moon, then on to Mars, the asteroids, and other habitable places in the solar system.  Initially by robotic explorers, then by human beings:  men and women.  How about that for an inspirational goal?


            Even in these “un-inspirational” days, many young people have been motivated to science and engineering fields by the prospect of becoming an astronaut, or of being a member of a robot exploration of the universe.  Imagine how excited a generation will be if they have the immediate prospect of setting foot on the sandy plains of Mars? 


            It’s not a war.  Its peaceful.  And it is sustainable.  But the vision cannot be delayed, shelved for “a better budget climate” in the distant and hazy future. 


            NASA may once again be the inspiration that America needs to shake off our lethargy, become the greatest nation in the world – maybe even the greatest nation in the world’s history – by continuing to explore the last frontier.  And since it will excite our children as nothing else can, NASA will transform education, and bring back the creative spark that powers our economic engine in ways that we cannot imagine.


            Having a seemingly unattainable goal is the hallmark of what it means to be American.  Our forefathers came here for opportunities that the old world lacked.  Our descendants will look for opportunities that this entire world lacks – but which the universe can provide. 


            And so, once again, American will transform itself and the world.  The old beekeeper from New Zealand had it right.  Ed Hillary lead the first expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest.  He summed it up this way: 


“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”


17 thoughts on “NASA and Education”

  1. The education problem is the same as any business which lacks competition. The price just goes up & up & up & the product goes down & down & down.

    The Indian engineers have 2 things in common. They all use apollo11 as their passwords. They got the world’s best engineering education in India because that country is in a dire war against Pakistan. They either put out the best or die.

  2. Wayne,
    Once again you have written an inspiring commentary. I wish others could have read your comments as you inspired all of us to persevere after the Columbia accident!

  3. I am glad to see you writing about the inspirational power of NASA’s work. During Dr. Griffin’s tenure, there seemed to be a drift of NASA’s education work toward only those projects that directly led to future NASA employees. As you observe, NASA has the potential to inspire so many more than just the relative few who will eventually work on a NASA project.

    It is important to note that this inspiration does not occur naturally. The first moon landing was covered by every television network, but, today, an equivalent event would have competition from hundreds of cable stations and millions of websites. It takes hard work from thousands of professional educators to connect young people to the inspiration that NASA provides. I hope NASA’s education work will expand its focus away from specific mission details (important, but secondary) and toward that inspirational role for all youth in the U.S. and worldwide.

  4. Mr. Hale is so correct.
    In California’s schools in the 1960’s and 70’s I enjoyed an education that was rated first in the nation. We had to be- as our country was facing the competitive free world for jobs and was producing the greatest technical and scientific results for all to world to wonder and enjoy.
    Now we are facing a job crisis in America- and everywhere you see higher tech science and industry jobs, you see people who came here from other nations to do them. Most everywhere you look you see younger American faces in food services and marketing and non- technical fields.
    That makes me sad…
    We have to wake up from our stupor and challenge ourselves again to be bold and train to stride towards the heights again- and I do not mean just in Science and space but in all things as our President has challenged us to do.
    Will we lead…. or should we get out of the way?

  5. Interesting thoughts on Education. Thanks. as former Director for Education at Ames I have had a few thoughts on NASA’s role in promoting STEM in this country. What I have noticed is that if you give students access and engage them on actual work we’re doing, we have a good chance to establish interest in or sustain interest in STEM. The ISS “can” be inspirational if we find ways to significantly connect students to ISS in meaningful ways – and I am sure we do that, but I have a not new, but radical idea to do this. Let’s take it to another level. How many people actually know what we have learned from the experiments performed on station? How many people actually know what the experiments are? How many students can design and control experiments on station? Is there a place where data from experiments are downlinked to schools in an understandable way for teachers to help students make sense of it. How many grand challenge questions are students engaged in around how to best use ISS? What if there was a competition for the best experiment for ISS and the “winner” – with necessary caveats – gets a trip to conduct that experiment on board, in person. OK, so you may have to be 18, but I PROMISE you that with THAT opportunity, we’d have 100,000 committed freshman scientists in our high schools overnight. The odds would be better than any lottery.

  6. At the risk of coming across like a crusty old curmudgeon, I give you some “observations” of my own after being out in the real world for the past 36 years. As always, the option to delete after reading is yours…

    “Imagine how excited a generation will be if they have the immediate prospect of setting foot on the sandy plains of Mars?”

    Forget it…if your body grows beyond the 5’7″ height limit. At least Shuttle could accomodate real people and not just jockeys!

    “…what is the most important tool to have to facilitate learning…”
    Simple…the DESIRE TO LEARN! If someone gets it in their head that learning is too “nerdy”, “geeky”, etc., you won’t be able to teach them anything. Inner city kids believe that drugs and crime are the way, and they couldn’t care less about science. They don’t look up, either.

    There is a paradigm “out here” that anyone not educated at the “right” university is useless and stupid. I have encountered this on a personal level, that my DeVry education doesn’t count somehow, nor does my 33 years of industrial grade experience.
    The fact of the matter is what have you done since you graduated? If all you’ve done is occupy a cubicle and swap drinking stories, you wasted it. My son intends to become a Civil Engineer, and to that extent, I’ll sell my internal organs to make sure that he NEVER encounters what I have.
    My career reputation has become irrelevant…because I didn’t want to waste my father’s money at Ohio State I’m automatically stupid, savage, and worthless.

    “Many have complained that the International Space Station and Shuttle programs have not been inspirational.”

    I suppose that the exploration of the world by the Europeans was also non-inspirational to them as well…what can you expect of a self-absorbed generation armed with the latest technology that enables them to send their innermost thoughts to anyone in the world in an instant? If it’s not on their mobile device or computer or TV screens, it’s irrelevant.

    Good luck trying to get anyone interested in science. I was unable to get either of my kids interested in amateur radio, and neither one of them have any inclination to learn how to fix things or work on cars.
    I look forward to the day when my youngest calls me up when he gets his first flat tire and wants me to come and change it for him.
    Kids do that these days.

    You and I are dinosaurs, Wayne. Modern-day “fresh-outs” don’t know the difference between carbon fiber and carbon paper. I once teamed up with an engineer of similar age at Boeing to snooker two “fresh outs” who were flashing their degrees and who had just questioned why the company had called me. They didn’t understand how their boiler worked. We easily convinced them that some slide rules came with batteries…

  7. Nice article Wayne, but here’s the rub:- there are other fields-of-interest out there, like environmentalism, sustainability, global warming, and energy production & distribution, that compete with the space program for providing inspiration among youth today. Organizations involved in these “green” fields have recognized the promotion potential of associations with the media and with educational institutions. Most young people today that are motivated to science & engineering fields have become so because of exposure to media or educational proselytism about the “green” challenges that we must address. These are the “new” issues that are more resonant with young people today than the “old’ issues of their parent’s time. Unfortunately, very few young people today are motivated to science or engineering because of the awe and majesty of the space program (even more depressing in light of the small numbers involved and which have not markedly increased in decades). NASA could up-the-ante, as you suggest, by trying new ways to excite our children about space exploration, but that would only result in an upping-the-ante by the “green” organizations, which are more diverse, better funded, and more closely connected to the media and educational institutions. Even if more young people decide to go into science & engineering (an unlikely event in the US, although more likely in the developing world), the percentage that actually are drawn to the space program may not change significantly. There is a competition for new minds and it is driven by the socio-political forces that are predominant at the time. To me, the best strategy is to somehow enlist the aid of these “green” organizations in a mutually cooperative fashion (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em). Then we could leverage their resources to further our own goals and perhaps diminish the competitiveness factor. Otherwise, I am afraid that space will occupy only a diminishing niche in society’s collective sense of relative importance (and the resulting career paths we steer our bright young people toward). In the business-as-usual scenario, unless freshly driven by war, threat of war, or political intrigue, dreams of humans conquering the space frontier may be long in coming.

  8. First, hats off to Dave H. He’s right you know… Almost too right… It’s all too true – and so sad – that kids seem to think it’s wrong – to be smart. That’s true not only in the inner cities, but also true in the little upstate New York village I dwell in. There’s very little homework, and when there is homework, it seems above and beyond what they are capable of accomplishing on their own without total parental help, or it’s accepted copy, paste, and print from the web. Ask them about it the next week – and all you get is a shrug, and an ‘I dunno’…

    Second, the current administration has to realize that what you wrote above is all too true. That “Yes We Can” mentality that we’ve all heard and drilled into our heads needs to be extended – fairly – to NASA.

    The most important move for NASA right now would be to appoint an administrator with that mentality, and one fully supported by the powers that be, who need to fully realize that the public does support NASA as a majority – and not a minority.

  9. Hi Wayne,

    I just graduated from Penn state in engineering, and started my first engineering job this year for a consulting firm in Louisiana. My perspective on the education system is definitely biased because I went to high school at a very well funded public school in Pittsburgh. My school had the unique benefit of having a planetarium. The planetarium that Penn State had was not as nice as the one at my high school. Regardless, what inspired me was my ninth grade earth science teacher, Mr. Pilot (and later my astronomy teacher).

    I distinctly remember being entirely indifferent, yet still motivated to get the “A” in eighth grade, but in ninth my outlook changed. Mr. Pilot was intelligent, motivating, crazy, young at heart, and someone who cared deeply about each of his students. What did Mr. Pilot do? He made science fun and interesting. Such as a game to memorize the definition of a mineral, which to this day I remember his definition, “A naturally formed inorganic solid with a definite chemical composition and set atomic arrangement.”

    The game involved standing in front of class and saying the definition of a mineral as quickly as possible. You had two tries to get it correct/say it as quickly as you could. The person that said it the quickest got some prize, but we all had fun. It is that kind of ridiculous activity that made science fun, and having fun in his class led me to take every science course offered (which meant less study hall).

    He also made the class interesting, albeit having a planetarium at his disposal every minute of class helped. His youthful exuberance and sometimes-outright insanity kept everyone interested. He showed us the beauty of the natural world, and the cosmos.


  10. Wayne:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. My daughter is a teacher and just the mention of NASA and space to her classes raises the level of attention. The problem is converting this attention into genuine interest. Interest that overcomes the attention span of a child so as to convince him or her to invest the effort it takes to get involved in science and engineering. To me that takes fascination. I know that I had an interest in space since before I learned to read, but what turned that interest into fascination was listening to Von Braun on the Disney shows and watching Mr. Wizard on TV. His enthusiasm was contagious, at least to me and my fascination with his displays inspired me. It was this, and not Sputnik, that got me hooked, although Sputnik didn’t hurt. What we need is elements of programs, such as Don Pettit’s cup, that fascinate to the tune of 500K hits on YouTube. This level of fascination leads to inspiration and it is Don’s enthusiasm and his “Mr. Wizard” approach that fascinates. The problem is that the science we do on the ISS, other than Don’s science, is not fascinating to children, and only by fascinating them can we inspire them.

  11. Hello Mr. Hale:

    As a contractor employee who frequently talks to students, I have found that there is a relunctance among educators to teach about space exploration because they believe that the math and science related to spaceflight is over their heads. They can talk about living in space and the history of spaceflight, but trying to teach high school students about orbits using vector math, calculus and physics is intimidating to them, so they avoid it in favor of environmental science (more relevent to students and easier to teach) or traditional science classes with time honored experiments that are easy to teach.

    To effectively teach space exploration, teachers must be given the resources (teacher training and materials) to incorporate the math, science and technology of spaceflight into the normal school curriculum.

    For instance, the EARTHKAM program allows students to use a camera on the International Space Station to perform Earth observations. Teachers are provided with an excellent training manual and all the materials needed to teach middle school students about taking pictures from space. This includes grade appropriate lessons on the International Space Station, orbits and groundtracks, the WORF (window in the Destiny module), the camera and its field of view from orbital altitudes, how to tell time in space, and how to select targets for observation. Students then use all this information to track when the ISS will be over a target of interest to the students, then send a command from their school to the Earthkam camera to take a picture at the appropriate time.

    If the students do everything right, they get a picture of a coastline, deforestation in the rainforest, active volcanoes, whatever interests the students. Teachers then use the images to talk about geography, geology, meteorology, social studies, economics, environmental science, role of technology in the area, and issues facing the people and animals that live there. If more schools were involved in the EARTHKAM or similar projects, I think we would have more students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. However, it also requires teachers leaving their comfort zone, and doing something that very few teachers have done before them.

    One can see where it would be intimidating for them, but we need to encourage our teachers, and space professionals like ourselves to volunteer our technical skills to projects like these. A one week unit on space exploration will not inspire students. A program like EARTHKAM definately will!

  12. Hello, Mr. Hale. I hope you are doing well. I have enjoyed for years your news conferences and recent blogs. I miss you at the shuttle conferences, though. (And I will really miss the shuttle when it is gone)

    I am a teacher and thought I should make a comment. It seems like we hear all the time about how U.S. kids do not stack up well to other nations on standardized tests. It depends on how you look at the data. (And education is very hard to measure objectively-no matter what the makers of standardized tests say)Many other nations have very different school systems. They quickly weed out low performing kids during middle school and high school and send them to other programs. We do not. In addition, the American poverty rate is much higher than in other countries and if you remove children from poverty in the test score calculations (Unfortunately one truth is that kids from low-income homes tend to score low on tests) our scores go up quite a bit and are much more comparable with other large nations. In the U.S. we try to educate ALL kids, and our test scores suffer for it. But I would rather see us try to reach as many kids as possible rather than separate them and send some who “can’t do it” away.


  13. It is interesting to me, as a social scientist, to see how important the idea of NASA’s power to “inspire” is to the political culture of the organization. It’s true that NASA isn’t responsible for education, but any analysis of presidential mandates and agency public relations rhetoric shows that NASA takes credit for impacting education-related issues. Sharing stories (e.g., AIAA’s “when did you know?” site) is a lovely passtime, but I’m surprised that engineers and scientists don’t want some “hard data” to back up the agency’s big claims.

    Many grandiose claims are made about NASA’s power to inspire, even at the level of justifying the whole astronautics enterprise. This is interesting on two levels: 1) because “inspiration” is a very “soft” outcome for engineers/scientists to claim ownership of and 2) it is demonstrable, at this point, only through rhetorical and anecdotal claims. I’m sure the PAO or Education offices track their activities, however, I have yet to see NASA sponsor a comprehensive and sophisticated qualitative (for you non-social scientists: this would involve hypotheses, experimental interventions, a multi-methodological framework, longitudinal data collection, and statistical analyses) study of its claims to “inspire.” It would cost very little money and provide an actual, tangible reference point for all these stories and contentions.

    Research questions: What is “inspiration,” operationally? To what extent does exposure to a measurable NASA interventions (education programs, NASA TV, etc) have an effect on children’s choice of a career in STEM fields? How does NASA “inspire” (do an ethnographic study to reveal its most effective mechanisms of inspiration)?

    There are a number of social scientists who have the expertise and interest to take this on. And we’re REALLY CHEAP.

  14. Dear Mr. Hale: I think you’re selling today’s kids a bill of goods re engineering.

    I knew in the second grade that my life’s work was going to be airplanes. In my Junior year in High School, I discovered Aeronautical Engineering, got a degree, and never looked back. Forty years ago, engineering was hands-on, challenging, and fun. Today most of the engineering research has been done and the algorithms have been written. Today’s engineers sit at computer workstations. The computer lays out the structure, computes the airloads (if any), and performs the stress analysis. If needed, it’ll make the engineering drawings and send the CAM instructions to the shop (in Thailand). Labor-saving to be sure but you don’t need a whole lot of engineers to do the work.

    For political reasons and to circumvent unions, companies like Boeing and AirBus are farming out design and manufacturing work to companies in other countries. NASA has regressed in its approach to getting people and stuff into orbit. (I had to laugh: they recently realized that the thermal protection system used for Apollo was still best for the new system. No research or engineering studies needed – just read the old reports.)

    As for me, I’m too old and too expensive to be employable. My education and experience are no longer applicable. Based on my family background, I can expect to live another twenty years “in retirement”.

    Keep on blogging. These responses are about the only fun I’m having these days.

  15. I think we should have a national academic competition to put a middle school student or perhaps high school student on Ares or Soyuz to the ISS, even better would be to have a US student on Ares and Russian or other national go up on Soyuz at the same time, and have the whole thing be a reality tv show that might help with the cost. I imagine that will generate a lot of interest from kids everywhere.

  16. you hit the nail on the head – inspiration. I teach middle school ELA / Science, so I integrate science in to my ELA curriculum as often as I possibly can. I find that the *best* way to capture attention is to some how tie the curriculum to something that is currently or has previously occured within a space / NASA field. Yeah, I might not get *all* of them hooked, but by golly, a majority of them are. I have afterschool launch and landing viewings during which I’ll stay after school for hours upon hours and open up the classroom so that students (and sometimes even their parents!) can watch the NASA feed – on my heavens, their reactions are priceless. If we finish a lesson early and have 3 minutes to spare at the end of the block (this makes a great motivator), I’ll turn on live feeds of the ISS or orbitor and the students are just flat out fascinated by what they see. To spark a science interest at this age is key – thanks for reminding us of this.

  17. I'm totally agree with you that one of the most important things to motivate children to learn new things is Inspiration, what had inspired these children to learn about space are the things they watch everyday in a scientific movies, reading on a magazines, video games and much more, and now they see people in NASA as their dreams facilitators to make their desires, passions come alive. So you guys in NASA should realized what kind of job and duties that are lying on your shoulder, don't disappoint these children and help them in anyway you can and take them to the future.


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