by Chris Tobias
There has been a lot of controversy in recent weeks about the so-called “sequestration” that has resulted in huge cutbacks in government funding and even the total loss of several programs that are government-funded. This past week, the space industry felt the effects of these cuts, as NASA announced that it has suspended its funding of educational initiatives.
I’m sure most people would probably think that as a professional educator, I surely must be outraged at this turn of events, but the truth is I am not very concerned by this at all. In fact, when I first heard the news, my initial reaction was to think that it might not be a bad thing if NASA circled its wagons a bit and concentrated on the business of putting people and machines in space. After all, isn’t that the reason why the US created the organization to begin with? I’m not a rocket scientist (that title is more suited to Jeff, Take Back the Sky’s co-founder, and I assume you’ve already read his blog entry on this topic), but I don’t feel I have to be in order to apply some simple logic here. NASA exists for space exploration, not education. The Department of Education exists for education. NASA should be no more responsible for teaching American children than American schools should be for putting satellites in orbit.
Perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is why NASA has needed to make a conscious effort to provide educational outreach programs up to now. Unfortunately, I think the answer is because the American educational system has been failing them for at least two decades.
Just prior to the most recent SpaceX Dragon mission to the ISS, I sent an e-mail to every teacher in my school district informing them that the launch could be viewed live on both SpaceX’s and NASA’s websites and encouraging them to consider making the viewing of the launch part of their morning lessons if they could justify it within their curricula. I received numerous responses, especially from teachers at the elementary and middle school levels, thanking me for making them aware of the opportunity. Most said they would not have known about the launch or that it could be seen live were it not for my e-mail. Now, there is nothing special about teachers sharing ideas. I am happy to report that it happens all the time. What is significant here is that I am our district’s high school German teacher! Why is it that a foreign language teacher has to be the one to inform everyone that there is an opportunity to incorporate viewing the launch of an unmanned resupply mission to the ISS into the day’s curriculum? That very question is symptomatic of the way we’re approaching 21st century education in America’s public schools.
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But if you look at our current public school model, which is driven by the idea of demonstrating proficiency on standardized tests, you’d think that no one in American education has ever read those words. I always tell my students that my primary mission is to teach them the German language, but that my secondary mission is to encourage them think about things, even things that have nothing to do with the German language or culture, in new ways. I wish I could say that every teacher, administrator and politician in America had a similar philosophy, but we both know that’s not the case. Just yesterday I heard one of my Honors students complaining about a test she had just taken in the class right before mine, saying the test was so difficult because it required short answers instead of being multiple choice! And yet, isn’t that what we’ve conditioned American kids to expect—the idea that learning should be the academic equivalent to choosing from menu options at a fast food restaurant? And our government, which places so much emphasis on a school’s ability to make “annual yearly progress” on a series of standardized tests, does nothing to dispel this notion.
Am I sorry that we don’t live in an age when our country is so prosperous that there is enough money for NASA to fund any number of missions and still have money left over for educational programs? Of course I am. But I see NASA’s current predicament as an opportunity for the American educational system to pick up the slack. Perhaps it is time for us to change our paradigm, to refocus on the idea that it is a teacher’s responsibility not just to impart knowledge, but also to spark imagination. The founder and CEO of the next SpaceX or Virgin Galactic could be sitting somewhere in an American classroom right now. How his or her future unfolds could depend in part on what kind of inspiration we provide.
I’m sure most teachers who read this would say, “Well, I’m not a Science teacher, so that’s really not my job.” But there’s more to space exploration than just the science. Social Studies teachers, what about the history of space exploration? Do your students recognize the names Mercury, Apollo or Gemini? Do they know what they mean? Do they know that the space shuttle isn’t flying anymore? (You may be surprised by the answer.) Math teachers, could you use math to do things like help students understand what a launch window is and why it’s important? English teachers, you more than anyone can teach them to love the stars. Are students still reading Verne, Asimov, Bradbury or Heinlein? (And if they’re not, then why not?) And school administrators, you are the ones who need to give teachers the latitude and the support to allow them to take risks like these in their lesson plans, rather than just holding them accountable for “the stuff that’s on the test.”
All we need to do is give the kids a chance to dream about space, and they’ll take it from there. If we provide the spark, their 21st century imaginations will catch fire in ways that we can only begin to imagine.
And what do I plan to do? Well, my AP students and I are going to watch Firefly, of course! I recently purchased the German-language versions of both Firefly and Serenity, and my senior AP class and I will spend the final grading period of the year watching them, learning the vocabulary, getting to know the characters and discussing the plotlines in German. More importantly, though, we’ll discuss the themes of love, family, freedom and opportunity within the context of a life “out there in the black.” I think those are themes that will resonate pretty clearly with today’s teens, and it may just encourage them to consider the possibilities of a life among the stars. At least that’s my hope. Well, that and that they do it with good, grammatically-correct German!
In the Firefly episode “Jaynestown,” Inara says, “Every problem… is an opportunity in disguise.” I could not think of a better way to describe this latest announcement by NASA. Wouldn’t it be great if America’s schools seized this opportunity? I, for one, would like to be able to join with my fellow teachers in telling NASA, “It’s okay. We got your back. We’ll encourage them to reach for the stars. You just concentrate on getting them there.”