There just aren’t enough young people sticking with the hard sciences. Leland Melvin, former astronaut and Associate Administrator for NASA’s Office of Education, mentioned this to an audience at the Enterprise Learning Summit 2012 in Alexandria, Virginia. Among American fourth graders, only three out of 10 science students and four out of 10 math students demonstrate a high
level of interest and aptitude. By high school that number drops to only two out of 10.
Nothing less than our civilization could be at stake, according to Melvin. Currently there are over 1 million jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields going unfilled. The future will require even more of these high tech workers. At NASA alone, the average age of NASA’s staff
is about 48 years old and 45 percent of their workforce is over age 50. It is critically important to develop young people who are trained in STEM, because that’s where the best, most interesting ideas come from.
“Those kids could be the doctors who save your life,” said Melvin, “... or planting the American flag on Mars.”
STUPID ASTRONAUT TRICKS
There are not enough qualified STEM teachers and there are limited resources available to train them. NASA is working with both private and federal groups to create 100,000 new certified STEM teachers. Because of the agency’s budget limitations, NASA is partnering with private industry, non-profits, and even celebrities like Will.I.Am to attract kids to STEM fields.
NASA has a special role in this effort. “[We contribute] high-quality STEM educations using our unique capabilities and assets that no one else has, Department of Education doesn’t have it, Energy doesn’t have it,” Melvin said.
And what is the best tool NASA has? “Stupid astronaut tricks.”
Melvin says watching videos of astronauts doing cool stuff in zero gravity … blowing giant water bubbles, floating candy and catching them … gets kids really excited about STEM. “[We’re] using the lure of space and connecting [it] to what students are doing every day. They play sports, they play video games.”
Melvin stressed the importance of the first two years in college. Only 16 percent of high school students go to college in STEM fields, and only 12 percent graduate with STEM degrees. NASA offers fellowships, scholarships and internships to college freshmen.
SOMETHING BIGGER THAN THEMSELVES
Part of NASA’s mission is to reach out to students who are not typically encouraged to excel academically because they are underserved. Will.I.Am and NASA sponsored a group of former gang members to one of FIRST Robotics’ Competitions for grades 9-12. The students built their own robots to fight in the competition. One inspired participant burned off his gang tattoos so he would not embarrass NASA.
“So you have transformed a kid from belonging to a gang to feel a part of something. Now they’re part of something much bigger than themselves as a STEM-ist,” Melvin said.
Melvin cites a lack of engagement, discipline, and belief in kids as the reasons that there are so few young people interested in STEM education. “There’s so many kids that we give up on because they have failed … I think about the space program. How many rockets failed before we got the one that worked right? That’s who we are as explorers, as inventors, as creative beings.
“How do we get these people connected in ways to allow them to feel that they have a part in this civilization?”
—Leland Melvin is a former astronaut who serves as the Associate Administrator for NASA's Office of Education. Visit http://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/about/index.html to learn more about nASA's STEM Education program.
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