The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing arced over the summer in STEM like a rocket shooting across the sky. Landing on the moon marked a striking triumph of political will and national commitment. Moreover, we are still reaping the benefits of technologies spun off from the project. Many accounts of the anniversary reminded us of these and other benefits accruing from the Apollo program.
In addition, though, the moon landing, seen from 50 years on, offers up some not-totally-reassuring contrasts with the current state of things in STEM education and more general efforts to prepare kids as future citizens and members of the workforce.
Bringing the past to life
Many accounts of the Apollo 11 anniversary aimed at inspiring and exciting people about efforts to reach space. To inhabit again the moment when landing on the moon was new, exciting, and even scary, NPR paired vintage photographs of the mission with five astronauts’ reflections on what they see in them, as astronauts themselves. It’s probably the closest way available to travel back through time and experience Apollo 11 as a contemporaneous event.
The things they saw
Astronauts’ experience of space can vary greatly, depending on how far into space their missions take them. The Washington Post interviewed 50 astronauts to sample a wide range of opinions, observations, and experiences people have gathered from reaching orbit.
“The astronauts remembered traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes, sunrise after sunset, on one constantly repeating loop. They conjured up the majesty of viewing Earth from a distance, the horribly bland food, the rattle of blastoff, the sensation of stepping outside for a spacewalk, seeing the Earth below and suffering the ultimate form of vertigo — the fear of falling all the way back down.”
And overwhelmingly, astronauts from all countries and backgrounds, agreed on one thing: the benefits of more people going into space to see and feel what astronauts themselves have seen and felt. In the words of Yuri Gagarin, the first person to reach space, “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.”
An occasion to inspire and educate
The Washington Monument served as a “screen” for footage of a Saturn V rocket launch, while flanked by 10 other giant, conventionally shaped screens in “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon.” The outdoor, multimedia narrative of the launch and moon landing showed for several nights on Independence Mall in downtown Washington, DC, a project of the Smithsonian Institution and partners.
And specifically for educators, NASA gathered a bounty of learning materials associated with going to space. Looking backwards at the Apollo program and forwards to Artemis – the project designed to set up sustainable human presence on the moon – NASA’s educational resources range from K to 12 across many different subject-matter areas. At a time when three times more kids aspire to become YouTube stars than astronauts, more exposure to the excitement and possibility of space-related studies can only help.
Gender divide in both space …
Picking Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt and Apollo’s sister, as the animating spirit for the project to establish long-lasting human presence on the moon is no accident. Giving a female icon such prominence in the space program, or any STEM program, marks implicit recognition of the need to attract more female participation, even just support, for these programs. Women support space programs at lower rates than men do, and the ranks of astronauts have been overwhelmingly male, notwithstanding the high profile of Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, and Christa McAuliffe. Getting more women to support space exploration, the view goes, would benefit not only NASA but also STEM efforts across the board.
… and on earth
And summer brought only more stories showing how STEM efforts across the board could benefit from continued progress towards gender equity. A study of scholarly publications by gender, for example, found that gender parity in computer science scholarship would take, at current rates of change, 118 years. Another study found similarly stark imbalances across gender in physics and math scholarship.
Degree attainment in STEM shows pervasive imbalances, as well. No state, it was reported, has more women than men with STEM degrees, despite years and years of girls- and women-focused STEM outreach and programming. Gaps range from about seven percent in Washington, DC, to over 22 percent in New Mexico and Montana.
However, if the Department of Education has its way, this gap might increase; it has opened more than two dozen investigations of female-oriented educational programs at colleges and universities, looking for evidence of gender discrimination. Against men.
Cracking “career readiness” nut
Among other phenomena, the STEM gender gap – despite many years of gender-specific outreach – also serves to illuminate larger challenges in designing pathways for students to follow into the workforce. For all the energy devoted to “career readiness,” how exactly to craft student learning activities that connect with future career options remains a puzzle. Even so, programs in “career readiness” are reaching earlier and earlier into students’ school years, with middle school and even elementary school increasingly the focus. An urban, partnership-based “career readiness” program, for example, centering on libraries as places to connect younger students to STEM learning is launching this year in 11 cities across the country.
No matter what success these programs might have, though, a strong argument exists that high schools are inherently inadequate at graduating students ready for any kind of career. Researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce note that anything less than a post-secondary credential – whether certificate- or degree-based – is strongly correlated with failing career outcomes. In their words, “If we fail to recognize that the game has changed and that high school is no longer enough, we will also fail to prepare future generations for tomorrow’s jobs.”
What to make of the future?
Of course, predicting what tomorrow’s jobs might actually be is tricky, as automation and modernization continue to scramble the formula for gainful human employment. This particular crystal ball envisions “quantum cryptologist” and “professional esports athlete” as among the jobs that today’s students might move into tomorrow. And this view holds that an “entrepreneurial mindset” has it all over whatever coding skills students might be building in their school years.
People as different as Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra have been credited with observing, more or less, “making predictions is hard, especially about the future.” Even so, we are implicitly doing exactly this in making choices about how to educate children.
As we saw this summer, the government once ran a space program that shaped our imagination of what the future could be. Now it wants to reduce the number of girls getting access to STEM learning. And YouTube seems to be filling a void in career learning programming. We can only hope that “quantum cryptology” translates really well into viral, meme-worthy videos.
Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.
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