Next Generation Science
The Hope of Science Past, Present, and Future
Author: Anna Van Dordrecht
In late October, I had the incredible privilege of traveling to NASA Langley in Hampton, Virginia for the second time in six months. This time, SCOE’s Maker Coordinator Casey Shea and I were invited to be part of Langley’s Centennial Open House, the culminating event in a series of celebrations for the center’s anniversary. The event marked one of the few times that the center is open to the public, and it drew a crowd of over 20,000 people.
The theme for Langley’s centennial was “A Storied Legacy, A Soaring Future,” and this was reflected in the open house offerings. There were many displays and tributes to the scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and astronauts who make up Langley’s past. Of note, people could visit the gantry where Neil Armstrong and others trained for the lunar landing, view the calculators used by Langley’s early computers alongside tributes to individual women, and visit the newly opened Katherine Johnson Computational Research Facility, dedicated to one of the black computers recently highlighted in the film “Hidden Figures.” NASA also opened up its various labs so that people could see what engineers and scientists are currently working on using state of the art digital manufacturing tools to make advances previously only dreamed about. And throughout the campus there were prototypes and descriptions of the future NASA is currently working towards: safe travel to and exploration of Mars.
While the event was nowhere near the holiday season (in my opinion that is- the commercial sector clearly disagrees!), I was struck by how NASA’s theme echos Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” in which Scrooge is visited by three ghosts (Past, Present, and Yet to Come) and is profoundly changed by what they show him. At Langley, the activities provided and the research and stories highlighted reminded attendees that there are lessons to be learned, advances to be made, and hope to be found when we reflect on the past, present, and future and use what we discover to guide our actions and practice.
Based on their reflections of the past, one lesson the leaders of NASA have learned is that meaningful exploration and discovery only comes about when you gather people who are innovative, creative, and curious. And so, they are keenly aware of the need to invest in the students of the present who will be the NASA innovators or the future.
This investment was clear at the open house- an entire section was dedicated to children. Students were invited to engage in engineering challenges, take pictures of themselves as astronauts, and, at our tables, try their hand at maker activities. Kids flocked to the area, eager to take on the creative challenges. In fact, we had one table full of random materials with a sign that simply asked participants, “What can you make?” The table was surrounded the entire day, and kids produced incredible designs.
I left inspired by the hopefulness of the experience developed by NASA and the enthusiasm demonstrated by the children at the event. I was also challenged to be more thoughtful about framing the larger science education experience around the past, present, and future in order to invite reflection and action.
We know from the past that great scientific advances have required bold moves, but always bold moves coupled with investigation, documentation, and evidence. Those who made advances weren’t always applauded or acknowledged in their own time. And yet, because of their work they dramatically impacted our present. Students need to learn these stories and understand the nature of science, the importance of investigation and evidence-based arguments, and the impact that scientific work has had on their lives.
In the present, the field of science is changing as we push the limits of discovery; there is greater integration and collaboration among varying fields, and technology and design processes are developing rapidly and opening new possibilities. Students need to hear from those currently in the field who are doing work they’re passionate about, understand that the scientific workforce is diversifying, and be able to imagine themselves as part of this workforce. They also need to experience what it’s like to investigate and collect evidence and also to design and create new things. According to students I’ve spoken with who are pursuing STEM careers, there is a great need in school to have more practice documenting work and learning to “go from nothing to something” instead of being given lock-step directions if they are to be prepared for their future jobs.
The future of science is unwritten, but it should be hopeful. Tony deRose, senior scientist for Pixar, pointed out in a recent talk that “the students starting middle school this year won’t retire until 2070, and they’ll be retiring from jobs we can’t yet imagine.” We certainly don’t know what the STEM fields will look like in 2070, nor can we predict what skills and expertise will be required. We do know that in 2017 alone there were a number of breakthroughs made by people not that much older than these students that will improve life and advance discovery, from glasses that give sight to the blind to a Mars craft that can probe under the surface. To prepare students for the future, we can tell them about these cutting edge inventions. We can also provide them with experiences of their own in design and innovation with authentic, unanswered questions and dilemmas. Perhaps most importantly, we can encourage and empower them to imagine the future they hope for, to dream big for themselves and the world, and to use their skills and talents to make this dream a reality.
“A Christmas Carol” might have ended very differently if Scrooge didn’t take the lessons he learned from the past, present, and future and put them into action. So too, the story of NASA Langley told at the open house might not have been the same if its leaders didn’t continually learn from the past and invest in the future. This can be a lesson for us as as well. It may feel too early for 2018 resolutions, but if you’re starting to think about them, here’s a question to consider: What actions can we take as science educators that honor and promote a storied legacy, a soaring future, and all the innovation and creativity in between? May the new year bring you hope as we invest together in students and the future we dream is possible.
A list of educational resources from NASA that promote classroom experiences shaped around authentic phenomena and stories, past, present, and future can be found here.