Monday, February 24, 2014

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!!

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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!