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Upbeat PCAST Meeting Addresses Future of NASA and Science Education

David A. Kronig
Number 70 - June 13, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met last month to hear from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Chair of the National Research Council’s Board on Science Education Helen Quinn. PCAST co-chair John Holdren opened the meeting by discussing the FY 2011 appropriations process. He noted that while programs important to the science and technology community did not receive increases in funding requested by President Obama, these programs did not fare badly compared to other areas of government.

In his prepared remarks, Bolden addressed the perception that the end of the shuttle program will mean losing American leadership in space. He said that this is immaterial because NASA is not moving away from human space flight. Moreover, he argued that the most important factor is NASA’s ability to conduct research and development, which is a high priority for President Obama.

Bolden said that the President has been working to correct a decades-long decline in NASA research and development investment and that the agency is working toward a continuing consistent cycle of investment and innovation. He also highlighted the newly articulated vision of NASA laid out in the 2011 Strategic Plan: “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

Bolden elaborated on some of the key projects that NASA plans to pursue, including continued operation of the International Space Station (ISS), development of a heavy lift vehicle to get out of lower earth orbit, and further exploration of the solar system. He discussed the Juno mission, a solar-powered spacecraft that will go into low orbit around Jupiter, and the Mars Science Laboratory, which will provide more detail about the planet than has ever been possible.

Bolden also mentioned earth science projects such as the Aquarius satellites, which will take surface salinity data, and the next generation of earth monitoring satellites, which will increase our ability to study and understand climate change.

Additionally, he discussed ways in which NASA experiments will contribute directly to improving human welfare on this planet, noting experiments on the ISS that have lead to new cancer drug delivery methods and improvements in our ability to treat Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Bolden highlighted ways in which technology developed by NASA has also translated to the civilian sector, such as aerospace innovations that will allow airplanes to reduce fuel consumption by 50 percent by 2025.

Bolden also discussed NASA’s role in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, saying that NASA’s expertise is not in teaching itself, but making the incredible content it has available to teachers so that their students can be exposed to the world of science and engineering. He noted that you cannot inspire students if they are not first exposed to this world, and that NASA can provide a riveting first exposure for students.

During the question and answer period, Bolden was asked about a fear in the environmental community that, as budgets shrink, the climate monitoring satellites may face funding cuts. Bolden said he shared that concern, but that NASA was working to ensure this would not happen.

He was also asked several questions about NASA’s role in STEM education. Bolden and Robert Braun, NASA’s chief technology officer, were enthusiastic in their responses. Both seemed to delight in the opportunities NASA provides students across a broad spectrum of educational backgrounds, from community college graduates working as technicians building the next Mars Rover to university students working on building critical pieces of software.

Helen Quinn’s presentation addressed a report currently being undertaken by the Board on Science Education (BOSE) to design a framework for what should be taught in K-12 science education. She remarked as an aside that BOSE’s current project is to create the framework, and that it will take another team to turn that framework into standards. She also noted that her remarks were based upon the interim report, which was made public last year. The final report is due to be unveiled at the end of June, and she therefore could not yet comment on its contents.

Quinn said that, though it has been fifteen years since the last effort at designing national science education standards, the current environment is ripe for this effort because of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an ongoing movement to encourage states to adopt a common set of standards in mathematics and English language arts. She emphasized that the National Research Council (NRC) is the right entity to carry out this work, referencing the fact that most responsibility for education lies at the state, not the federal, level. However, though it is not a federal agency, the NRC is able to leverage its national reach to convene the top experts in science and science education.

Quinn discussed the overarching goal of the effort, which is to design a holistic science education curriculum that will provide students with a grounding in the fundamental concepts and principles that underpin all scientific endeavors. These include things like asking well-defined questions, using models, and arguing from evidence.

Included in the framework is engineering education, which Quinn said they combined with science because in doing engineering projects, students would get to apply what they learned in science. Thus, their knowledge of science would be deepened by hands-on experience, furthering the goal of helping students truly learn scientific concepts instead of a memorized list of facts.

She also highlighted that the forthcoming report is just the first step. The framework will need to be turned into standards, the standards will need to be adopted by states, curricula will need to be developed, and teachers will need professional development opportunities so that they are prepared to teach the new curricula.

Following her prepared remarks, Quinn was asked a number of questions about turning the framework into standards. She repeatedly noted that that would be undertaken by Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit established by state governors and corporate leaders, and was outside the scope of BOSE’s effort. However, she acknowledged that it would be a challenging undertaking.

She was also asked about how the new standards would be assessed, assuming they were implemented by states. She said that that was also beyond the scope of the current project, and was likely one that should be addressed by a federal agency, not the National Academies. She acknowledged that this is a key issue, however, saying that it is well understood that assessment drives classroom instruction.

Holdren closed the meeting by thanking the presenters and PCAST members and staff who made the meeting possible.

David A. Kronig
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
dkronig@aip.org
301-209-3094