As educators, we know providing learners with unique experiences increases their classroom interest and eventually positively influences their academics while in school. The key, though, is to spark their intellectual curiosity beyond the classroom. It sounds simple and logical, but we know there is much more involved. Anything from state testing to social factors and our media environment can affect a student’s interests and goals. Today, more than ever, innovative resources are available to help educators create unique and inspiring experiences in STEM subjects. There is no single way to inspire all learners, but we can certainly think outside the box in our efforts to bring forth the next generation of explorers.
Recently, NASA and the world lost Neil Armstrong, a true hero and explorer who inspired countless people, a multitude of ideas, and of course, innovations in science, leading to societal benefits beyond our imagination. Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” will forever live in the hearts of those he inspired. Whether from a person or an event, learners need this type of inspiration to guide them to a successful and rewarding future.
NASA’s Office of Education works every day to achieve the type of inspiration Armstrong embodied. Our mission is to advance high-quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education using our agency’s unique capabilities. We are achieving this by providing a myriad of interactive STEM education resources embraced by educators. The NASA Explorer Schools (NES) program, for example, provides educators of grades 4–12 access to NASA’s scientists, engineers, and missions, as well as lesson plans and live web seminars. The ISS Live! website provides real-time mission information educators may use when explaining to students an astronaut’s responsibilities aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Specifically, ISS Live! includes live mission information, such as select real onboard system data, onboard crew timelines, and mission-relevant lesson plans.
When I attend educator conferences, I am often asked, “What is the best way to demonstrate real-world applications of science and math concepts?” What better way to convey this than by having learners speak directly to astronauts and scientists or view mission objectives via websites and programs such as ISS Live! and NES? Other NASA Education hands-on STEM activities proven to be favorites among educators and learners are the annual Great Moonbuggy Race and the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competitions. When I see the excitement and motivation in the faces of these teens and young adults, it’s clear they are fully engaged and have found something they are truly passionate about. It reminds of me of building my own skateboard as a young boy, and the chemistry set I had, with which I got into all kinds of trouble. As we look for inspiration to fully engage learners, it’s helpful to recall our childhood and remember what events or concepts consumed our minds and energy. Was it something someone said to you, a book you read, or just your imagination?
NASA Education is developing partnerships with both private and public organizations that will provide more innovative formal and informal resources to fully engage learners. The need to inspire learners in STEM is receiving increasing support, so the time is right to seek as many opportunities as will suit your objectives. As we brainstorm about how to get learners more involved with their studies through a variety of resources, it’s key to really know what makes them tick. Do your students follow a certain rock band, hip hop artist, or athlete? What are the current film blockbusters? What hardships do students face each day? If you want to get their attention, tying what you know about them into STEM lessons can make a difference.
Practical information you provide students may also inspire them. Highlighting the benefits of pursuing and succeeding in a STEM career is sometimes sufficient to motivate a high school or college student. Our current environment tells us there is an increasing need to fill high-paying STEM jobs, and this trend will continue for years to come. Why not share this with students as an additional way to encourage them to pursue a STEM degree? Providing a realistic view of what’s expected from them as STEM students or professionals is equally important. The reality is that pursuing a STEM degree is hard work. Let them know the path to a rewarding future is not easy, and they may encounter obstacles along the way that they will have to work around. Who knows? The challenge alone may be their inspiration.
When it comes to inspiring our future explorers who will lead our society and potentially make discoveries that will change the way we live, ask yourself and tell your students to ask themselves if there is anything that may give you/them that extra “oomph.” I assure you that’s what keeps the “Neil Armstrongs” of this world innovative. Maintain learners’ curiosity, think big, ask the right questions, and—most importantly—don’t lose your very own inspiration.
Leland D. Melvin, NASA associate administrator for education, is responsible for the development and implementation of the agency’s education programs. He served as a mission specialist on two missions to the International Space Station.