The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is embarking on an ambitious new education framework to attract and retain students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields by involving students in consistent STEM activities that span the length of their school years and beyond.

NASA’s Education Strategic Coordination Framework, announced last month, highlights agency content, people, and facilities as the foundation for new educational opportunities it will sponsor. The framework also outlines a plan for NASA to develop new non-traditional partnerships and strategic alliances to inspire and engage the nation’s youth.

“Through this framework, NASA will support the country’s educators who play a key role in engaging and preparing today’s young minds to lead the nation’s laboratories and research centers of tomorrow,” said John Hairston, the agency’s acting assistant administrator for education.

The essence of the framework comes from NASA’s concern over the nation’s future workforce, said Jim Stofan, the deputy assistant administrator for NASA’s education programs. “We are refocusing and coordinating all of our education efforts to create a pipeline of opportunities for kids that will eventually lead them into the [STEM] workforce,” he said.

NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration, which calls for humans to return to the moon by the end of the next decade, paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars and beyond, is a “multigenerational endeavor” that requires STEM professionals to capture students’ interests today and continue to reinforce their interests in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through elementary, middle, and high school, as well as college, graduate, and post-graduate years.

“Past [NASA] programs are strong, but they haven’t been connected to allow students to continue to grow,” Stofan said. This new framework is “a new way of how NASA is going to work with outside partners, as well as internally, to provide real access to people and content.”

The framework operates not only to interest and involve students in STEM activities during one school year, but also to challenge students continually, grabbing their interest and making STEM subjects a part of their lives beyond school.

Stofan illustrated one of many ways the framework could operate. The potential pathway to a future STEM career might begin with a middle-school student attending a NASA Explorer School. This is a program involving a three-year partnership between NASA and a school or district to infuse NASA-related content into the curriculum, while at the same time keeping the curriculum mapped to state standards. Students spend their time using real science and engineering events as case studies and models, while learning their school’s curriculum through a NASA lens.

As that student enters high school, he or she would be able to enter INSPIRE, a high-school level program composed of after-school support programs, after-school clubs, and internships. Students must apply to the program, but once accepted, they gain experiences and do work that will lead them to the next stage of the pipeline–NASA’s Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology (MUST) program, a four-year college scholarship that provides support and resources for students interested in STEM careers.

Once that student finishes his undergraduate studies, he can enroll in NASA’s graduate programs, which involve research projects in which students work side-by-side with leading researchers. The student then could become involved with post-graduate and post-doctoral programs, Stofan said, after which NASA hopes the individual will begin working for NASA and its industry partners to implement the agency’s vision.

NASA needs to “capture kids’ excitement when science can spark the imagination and students can still dream, and continue to nurture that all the way through” their education, Stofan said. “There should be no cul-de-sacs for interest; there should always be something else that can challenge them.”

The framework’s success depends on strategic planning and close coordination among NASA’s offices of education, mission directorates, human capital management, diversity and equal opportunity, and other offices, according to the official framework text.

NASA has partnered with outside agencies to implement the new framework. Among those is Honeywell, with whom NASA teamed up to produce “FMA Live! Where Science Rocks,” a traveling hip-hop science education program geared toward middle-school students. The program is named after Sir Isaac Newton’s Second Law (force equals mass times acceleration) and focuses on Newton’s laws of motion, which are found in virtually all middle-school curricula. Teachers receive preparation materials, as well as pre- and post-lessons.

“The performers are college-aged, and they try to make it young and diverse, so it’s dynamic and relevant,” Stofan said.

NASA also has partnered with the Girl Scouts of the USA in the “Girls Go Tech” initiative as part of the framework. That partnership uses NASA launch centers and visitor centers as points of inspiration for girl scouts–engaging them in activities with astronauts, helping them earn merit badges, and giving them the opportunity to see the role of women in the field.

Engaging the nation’s students in STEM fields “is one of the most important aspects of how we plan to implement the vision for space exploration, ensuring we have the workforce of the future to make it happen,” Stofan said. “Much of the hardware that we need to create, and much of the science we’ll do, hasn’t even been dreamed up yet. The kids we inspire today will be the ones to implement those things and get us there. By the time our kids today are adults, we will be living on the moon. We will have a permanent base on another celestial body. That’s phenomenal,” he said.

This, Stofan emphasized, is exactly why U.S. students need to become more involved, and stay involved, in STEM education and activities. “If you can imagine, in a lifetime and a half we’ve gone from the Wright brothers to living on the moon,” he concluded. “These are kids who are gong to live in a world that is unlike anything we’ve come up with yet.”

Links:

NASA
http://www.nasa.gov

NASA’s Education Strategic Coordination Framework
http://education.nasa.gov/about/strategy/index.html

INSPIRE Program
http://image.gsfc.nasa.gov/poetry/inspire/index.html

Girls Go Tech
http://www.girlsgotech.org