Upbeat PCAST Meeting Addresses Future of NASA and Science Education

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Publication date: 
13 June 2011

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.

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