Skip to main content

Where is all the 'Right Stuff' going?!

All I ever wanted to be was an astronaut.

Like most kindergartners ‘Astronaut’ was my buzzword – my go-to vocabulary utterance when an adult would ask that cliché question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I drew pictures of planets, perfected my five-pointed line-by-line star, and interjected “countdowns” whenever I wanted to sound cool. And after watching the Right Stuff with my dad I couldn't imagine a life more glamorous or dangerous or exhilarating than that of an astronaut. I was completely swept off my feet by science.

As elementary school trudged on many of my classmates that had also proclaimed ‘Astronaut’ as their future career began choosing other, possibly more lucrative career paths – professional sports star, the next Britney Spears, Leonardo DiCaprio’s on-screen peer, or maybe just his future wife. I was left in the dust as they dreamed out the mansions they would buy and the cars they would own; I simply planned which college I could afford and how to earn scholarships to become an Aerospace Engineer. I’m sure many of them, likely the majority of them, thought ‘Astronaut’ sounded just as far fetched as movie star, but the most important thing was that I never saw it that way.

Looking back I find it fascinating that kids latch onto science at a very early age, when learning is fun and the emphasis in the classroom is more about developing interpersonal skills and creative thinking. But as time goes on, and kids become stressed by grades categorically arranged by subjects, their focus shifts to a sort of “survival” mode, sometimes struggling to master a particular subject and in turn dreaming about a future that doesn't include a chance of failure in these areas.  “Science” is pushed aside for the mainstream “reading, writing, and arithmetic” and many students forget they even liked it in the first place.

The beauty of science is its inherent integration. As an Attitude Determination and Control Officer for the International Space Station, I can’t rely solely on math to perform my job successfully. Engineering is way more than math. It is about teamwork within Mission Control and across continents, it is about reading software upgrades and bugs, it is about planning trajectories and understanding orbital mechanics, it is about communicating plans or responding to emergencies clearly and concisely, it is about integrity and personal challenges. Classroom lessons focused on science build all of these critical skills – teamwork, reading, mathematics, communication, integrity, responsibility – often disguised as hands-on learning, group efforts, and exciting reactions. These physical connections with hardware or chemicals or popsicle stick bridges are the experiences that are remembered and which inspire students to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In a way, they hearken back to those moments in kindergarten when creativity and critical thinking, even about finger paints or play-doh, was encouraged and careers, like ‘Astronaut’ seemed absolutely attainable.  

Right now, we are in the midst of a generation completely reliant on technology, but one that places too little value on science and engineering (at least, in this humble blogger’s opinion). Its not hard to find students these days using Google, smart phones, tablets, and other interactive technology to read up on the latest Hollywood gossip, stay up-to-the-minute on sports scores, or play Candy Crush (ok, guilty once in a while) instead of crunching out an innovative piece of code or engineering a smaller, more efficient battery, or just looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope with a sense of wonder. How ironic that these engineering marvels, these machines on the cutting edge of science and technology are, indirectly, contributing to their own creators decline.

It has never been more important than now to step up the game. We need to work together to advocate for the importance of science lessons in America’s classrooms at a national level. At a classroom level, we need to equip teachers with the technologically rich lessons necessary to facilitate science education; we can’t afford not to. At a parent and community level we need to plant the seeds of science and curiosity, and actively cultivate them. And at the student level, kids should be encouraged to vocalize goals and act on them!

Scientists and engineers aren't born with a TI-89 calculator in hand and a brain full of differential equations. Nope. We are inspired by the world around us, challenged by the problems that face us, and encouraged by those who love us. We are charged to create a better future for everyone – cleaner energy, smart buildings, and magnificent space stations. Our work is often selfless, inconveniently scheduled, and mentally draining…but it is also incredibly rewarding.

All I ever wanted to be was an astronaut – piloting a multi-billion dollar space station is a pretty cool interim job ;-)

Left: 3rd grade Nerdy April with a homemade, fully functional robot.   Right: 20-something Nerdy April in Mission Control at NASA's Johnson Space Center!!

_________________________________________________________

Need a family-friendly technologically savvy resource to cultivate tomorrow’s brilliant scientists and engineers? Or maybe you want to work out your own gray matter? Check out National Geographic's Brain Games, it premiers TONIGHT!!! Set your DVRs for 9pm on National Geographic Channel! 

Full Disclosure: I was not compensated for this post, but I do personally think National Geographic is pretty rad and I'm thrilled to write a lil' something for them! Also, all opinions are my own, not National Geographic's or NASA's!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The road to curing Type 1 Diabetes

From the moment of diagnosis, the road is rough, the learning curve is steep and the stakes are literally life or death. The map is less-than-helpful - paths originating from virtually every corner, coalescing at a center point (aka "diagnosis") and bursting back outwards - some paths cross and wrap around each other but others are isolated. And even with all of these roads, most of the territory is uncharted - how did we all get here and how will we all exit? Where are the obstacles we haven't found yet? Which passage holds the key to unlocking the solution? On any given day I feel pretty isolated with this disease - I'm the only T1D in my group at work, the only one in mission control, the only one in my family. I go through the logistics of calling insurance companies, ordering supplies, changing sites and troubleshooting malfunctions mostly on my own. Even those pesky carbs really only get counted in my brain, no group think for a meal bolus here. But there i

The Diabetes Transportation System DTS-T1

I was looking forward to the Space Shuttle launch on Monday, then it was pushed to Wednesday and now it is scheduled for Thursday due to several electrical issues from a main engine computer controller. Ironically, our little MH-47G (due to start testing on Monday originally) has been having it's own issues and it is still unclear exactly when we will start testing. And all of this uncertainty, schedule changes, and issue-working reminds me of my little friend Diabetes [come on, you knew that was coming :-)]. Even with hard work, super awesome bolusing skills [ check out Holly's blog today, the number crunching is very impressive] and constant blood sugar checks, Diabetes can still be unpredictable, necessitate schedule changes, and cause the carrier to work through the issues. I have been lucky today, even after a late-night cocktail last night, I woke up this morning at 112, and before lunch I was an amazing 113. I love being steady like that, cruising along with hardly an

What it's really like being a woman engineer in 2020

Today is International Women in Engineering Day (#INWED)! This year marks a full decade since earning an Aerospace Engineering degree, launching my journey as a woman engineer. So, what does it feel like as a woman engineer today, in 2020?  It probably comes as no surprise that women are still the minority in most engineering fields, mine included. The real statistics? At my first job out of college , women made up 10% of my group and that percentage came from only one woman: me. There were a handful of other women scattered throughout the rest of the organization but it was probably around 10% at best. I relied solely on men to teach me how to interact with military officers, when to speak up in meetings, how to don and doff flight gear and talk on the radio, how to avoid red-out during aerobatics, how to take engineering notes during night flights, how to setup and run data, how to run a pre-flight and post-flight briefing, how to conduct myself at customer sites, how to layer up an
01 09 10