Young Visitors Inspire Old Scientist

A perennial hand-wringing topic among policy geeks is America’s decline in math and science proficiency.

A perennial hand-wringing topic among policy geeks is America’s decline in math and science proficiency.  This sentiment has been expressed the entire 30 years I’ve worked on space science and exploration – new generations don’t care about space, can’t do math and science, can’t think properly and the country’s going to hell in a hand basket.  Complaint about the decline in our ability is something passed from one generation to the next.  Today’s youth are being corrupted by iPods, Facebook and hip-hop; when I was a kid, it was Frisbees, MAD magazine and the Beatles.

There is a continuous stream of doom-laden reports outlining the decline of American youth in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (called STEM).  In this country, most Ph.D.s in science and technology are now foreign-born (these reports don’t mention that most often, they stay here, adding to our technical knowledge base).  Multiple factors are suggested as contributors to this decline, with the lack of an inspiring, exciting space program long believed to be important by many advocates.  This meme, of long currency in space policy circles, has some flaws.

Origins of the association between space exploration and science education go back to the days of Sputnik –the “ping” that shocked and alarmed the country.  This event prompted loud public cries for somebody to “do something” about the educational decline of America’s youth (corrupted then by ’57 Chevys, hula-hoops and Elvis).  Congress responded in the usual manner – they threw money at the problem.  The National Defense Education Act of 1958 (interesting wording that) created a huge infrastructure largely dependent upon federal funding that directly answered the Soviet challenge in space.  The number of science graduates exploded over the next couple of decades, leading many to conclude that 1) the excitement generated by the Apollo program inspired these students to aspire to careers in science; 2) huge amounts of federal money can solve any problem.

Although Apollo is now a distant memory (or for many, a distant, historical event that they’ve only read about in third-hand accounts), the confluence of space and education is taken as a given by many in the business.  NASA spends a designated fraction of their budget on a process called “EPO” (Education and Public Outreach), designed to inform and inspire the next generation of scientists and explorers.  As you might expect, these efforts range from the interesting and innovative to the embarrassing (though well intentioned).

A perception has emerged that the problem lies not with the methodology, but with the product – because we are not doing anything in space that is “exciting,” we aren’t producing quality scientists and engineers.  This may well account for what sensible students – with an eye toward putting food on the table after they graduate – choose to study.  Then too, perhaps there are too many in the field already.  But with effort, excellence will find productive work; self-esteem and entitlement will not cut it in the long run, no matter what your field of endeavor.

Recently, I had the opportunity to directly interact with students at two ends of the education pipeline and found the experience highly encouraging.  In the first case, the father of a local second-grader asked if his son could visit and interview me.  The boy had chosen to write a semester paper (in second grade??) about the Moon. The child was both well spoken and well informed.  He asked relevant and very intelligent questions.   What is the value of the Moon?  What do we want to know about it and how do we find these things out?  Can people live there?

I found his questions and understanding of the problems and benefits of exploring the Moon to be at a very high level (much higher than many adult reporters who call me).  Then he asked me an unexpected question:  How fast does the Moon travel through space?  After initially drawing a complete blank, I suggested that we find out together and went on to calculate it on the spot.  We concluded that the Moon flies around the Earth at over 2200 miles per hour (much faster than he traveled down the freeway to visit me).  He was delighted by this episode of “science in action.”  I was delighted to be challenged by his understanding and his interest in the topic.

Around the same time, a high school debate coach contacted me.  He told me that next year’s debate question is “Should humans explore space?” and asked if I could assist his team, as they were collecting information for their briefing books.  Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by their level of knowledge and their understanding of complex issues.

We reviewed the history of the space program, and why and how the current policy confusion has developed.  These students were informed and sharp.  They had already read and digested a great deal of information – drawing insight and conclusions about issues the space community is embroiled in.  Their questions were both penetrating and logical, and sent a clear message of their desire to fully understand the technical and programmatic issues involved.

What did I conclude from my encounter with a sample of today’s youth?  Mostly, that reports of the demise of our Republic are premature.  These kids were smart and well informed.  They could assimilate new information and apply it to other topics in clever ways.  They had an enthusiasm for their subject that was both gratifying and surprising.  And, they are interested in space, regardless of the current “uninspiring” nature of the program.

Inspiration is great, but it’s a highly personal factor and its impact and importance are difficult to measure.  The current STEM/outreach process at NASA conflates excitement and inspiration, but they are two different things.  The circus entertains us but we find inspiration elsewhere.  We need to focus on building a stable space program that will give us long-term benefits – a step-wise, incremental program that gradually increases the extent of our reach into space.  Compared to the current policy chaos, it just might be inspirational too.

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