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