Commentary | Let’s Launch, Not Deorbit, NASA Education

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s NASA budget request for fiscal year 2014 is filled with many surprises — from sending humans to a captured asteroid to the transfer of climate sensors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to a new Mars rover in the next decade. There’s something for everyone.   

However, one proposal that continues to capture more and more attention is the president’s initiative to move nearly $50 million of education and public outreach funding out of NASA as part of an effort to consolidate the majority of activities of 12 federal agencies under only three: the Department of Education for kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programs; the National Science Foundation for undergraduate and graduate programs; and the Smithsonian Institution for informal science education.  

Surprisingly, the president’s proposal takes NASA science out of science education and opts for a more generic approach for teaching the universe, Earth, aeronautics and rocketry.

NASA would retain four major programs deemed by some unknown criteria to be unique to the agency. However, programs that communicate truly unique NASA missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the important science they produce somehow do not meet that criteria, and would therefore be transferred to the three lead agencies. The Department of Education, not NASA, would be responsible for delivering Hubble Space Telescope content to K-12 classrooms.

Yes, you read that correctly.  

Increasing the public’s understanding of NASA, its missions and the exceptional science and technology it produces would now be the job of the Department of Education, National Science Foundation and Smithsonian, depending on the audience.

On a broad level, the extensive and proactive network of scientists and educators that has evolved from a dedicated and supportive culture that prioritizes STEM education would go away. 

On a more specific level, the over 1,800 peer-reviewed space and Earth science education and public outreach resources included in the searchable database, NASAWavelength.org would disappear even as Wired.com recently featured it, stating, “Watch out, space educators, there’s a new tool in town!”

As a result, inspiring the next generation of explorers just got a lot more difficult.

Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and a host of other planetary scientists agree that this move would be detrimental to the goal of advancing STEM education. They voiced their concerns in response to a question at a recent Capitol Hill briefing about cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science Division sponsored by the Planetary Society.

Nye fondly recalled that when he was a student at Lafayette Elementary School in Washington, a NASA representative visiting his classroom dipped a cigar in liquid oxygen, and it burned like a road flare. “It’s what got me interested in science!” Nye said.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Bobak “Mohawk Guy” Ferdowsi had a similar story, recalling when he was a child seeing the first images from the Mars Pathfinder mission via the Internet. Had NASA not embarked on such an active public outreach campaign, Ferdowsi may not be part of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover team today. As a NASA engineer, he believes it is essential to engage with students and the public, to tell the story of science in one’s own narrative.

The stories shared by Nye and Ferdowsi illustrate the reach and impact of NASA science education and certainly question the benefits of threatening it. As Nye points out, NASA has one of the best brands in the world, especially with teachers and students.

And NASA science education goes well beyond anecdotes. Consider the impact of the president’s proposed budget on the following Science Mission Directorate education and public outreach activities, which would be zeroed out: 

  • More than 500,000 preservice and in-service teachers use Hubble standards-based classroom-ready materials annually. Hubble educational resources are utilized by 42 of the largest 100 school districts in the country and more than half of the state departments of education. In the proposed plan, educators returning to school in the fall would find that these materials are no longer available to them and would need to rework their curricula.
     
  • MY NASA DATA provides access to over 200 data products from NASA Earth science missions, tools and peer-reviewed lessons — designed specifically for K-12 audiences. The National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education (July 2011) identifies eight practices that are considered essential for K-12 science and engineering curriculum. Using MY NASA DATA enables students to hone their skills across all of these interrelated, essential practices. The up to 80,000 educators and learners who annually use MY NASA DATA are at risk of losing a critical resource that makes taxpayer-funded NASA data accessible for STEM education.
     
  • The NASA Science Mission Directorate’s approach to education and public outreach enabled Mars Odyssey instrument scientists and educators at Arizona State University to create the Mars Student Imaging Project, where students work together to develop a question about Mars, target an image using a NASA spacecraft, receive their image and analyze it, and write a formal scientific report on their findings. The project has won the Science magazine Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. Such opportunities would be nearly impossible to re-create within a centralized education structure that lies apart from NASA. 
     
  • Earth to Sky is a partnership among NASA, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that enables informal educators to access and use relevant NASA science, data and educational and outreach products in their work. A longitudinal evaluation has demonstrated that these professional educators have, in turn, reached over 4 million National Park and Wildlife Refuge visitors with content derived from Earth to Sky professional development. They have also provided training to over 2,000 other educators. Removing funding would eliminate this growing interagency partnership, which provides a large return on investment and leverages the strength and capabilities of three agencies. 

It is difficult to imagine the 21st century classroom without the excitement, awe and content of NASA. The fact is that NASA programs simply could not be reproduced by any other agency as they depend on a vibrant ecosystem of explorers, engineers, scientists, education specialists, communications experts and data visualizers.  

In recent testimony, Patti Grace Smith, former associate administrator for commercial space transportation for the Federal Aviation Administration, may have said it best: “No one teaches what NASA does like NASA.”

The Obama administration’s science education proposal should be reconsidered. NASA should maintain its robust, rigorously evaluated and far-reaching education and outreach activities as the agency is a vested stakeholder in developing the next generation of scientists and engineers.   

Hopefully then, all future surprises will result from the nation’s visionary space exploration and discovery missions, not questionable budget proposals.

 

Nancy Colleton is president of the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, which specializes in Earth science education and outreach and Earth observations.