Looking to attract more students to careers in technical disciplines such as science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM), a group of educators, policy makers, students, and officials from NASA and other government agencies convened outside Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17 for a first-of-its-kind summit aimed at fostering sustainable educational partnerships.

The government space agency used the day-long event, called the NASA Education Partnership Summit, to lay out a new educational framework intended to help NASA work more effectively with schools, while furthering its mission of preparing today’s students for success in the 21st century. Held at the University of Maryland Inn and Conference Center in College Park, Md., the event took place just a short drive from the agency’s Goddard Flight Center–one of 10 regional NASA research facilities throughout the United States.

Schools face a daunting challenge in preparing students for a changing workforce, one where co-workers are as likely to reside in cities halfway across the globe–in Beijing or Nepal, for example–as they are to work in offices down the hall. To meet this challenge, summit participants said, it’s imperative that schools adapt to a changing landscape. Fortunately for educators, it isn’t a burden they need shoulder alone; future employers also have a vested interest in seeing students succeed, participants noted.

“When you have a great partnership, it’s amazing what you can accomplish,” said Joyce Winteron, NASA’s assistant administrator for education.

Seeking to improve its relationship with schools and, in turn, boost interest in STEM education, NASA has announced a new “Education Framework.” The framework concentrates on four key areas of involvement: to inspire, engage, educate, and employ.

Administrators have fashioned the framework in the form a pyramid designed to work from the bottom up, starting with inspiration. The space agency says it will focus its partnership efforts on engagement and formal education in elementary and secondary schools, gradually shifting the emphasis to the job market in college and university settings. The goal, according to NASA, is to build strategic partnerships focused on improving knowledge and understanding of STEM education; to attract and retain more students in the STEM disciplines; and, ultimately, to pump more highly qualified workers into the new global economy.

Partnering for change

“With the new framework, we’re pulling NASA together to become one solidified unit as an agency education effort,” said Bernice Alston, NASA’s deputy assistant administrator for education, in an interview with eSchool News.

In partnering with schools, NASA is looking to serve as a conduit for improving education, giving teachers and students a better understanding for the types of skills that 21st-century employers need and demand.

“We’re reaching out to all sectors,” said Alston. “We’re reaching out to industry, government, nonprofits, community-based organizations. We’re reaching out to everyone, because we don’t have all of the answers and we think that we can do a much better job if people who have vested interests in their communities can have a say about how we improve STEM education.”

Through its initiatives, the space agency seeks to provide schools with a range of benefits they otherwise would not have access to. For example, NASA invites schools to explore distance-education opportunities so that scientists from any one of its 10 regional facilities can share their knowledge and understanding with students. The space agency also promotes site visits and teams up with outside organizations to offer summer camps and project-based learning opportunities designed to give students a feel for what it’s like to work in the profession.

The Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp is one such example. Harris, a former astronaut, physician, and accomplished businessman, founded the initiative in conjunction with the Houston Independent School District, the University of Houston, and Southwestern Oklahoma State University as a way to enhance opportunities for disadvantaged youth.

The two-week residential summer camp hosts middle and high school students at some of the nation’s top universities, providing them with an opportunity to hone their math and science skills in hopes of securing better jobs.

This year, with the help of NASA and ExxonMobil, Harris says, the camp will expand from two locations to as many as 20 campuses nationwide. Without the support of willing partners, he said, such growth would have been impossible.

So what makes for an effective educational partnership? Ideas are good, said Alston. But they have to be sustainable; the key is to develop relationships that last.

“We have to come together and do more with what we have,” she said. “We need to ask, ‘How do we develop our workforce–and how do we do it well?'”

It’s an important question, says author and long-time educational researcher Willard Daggett. Unfortunately, finding an answer might be more difficult than many people realize.

Daggett, whose organization–the International Center for Leadership in Education–is working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and others to identify the nation’s 20 top-performing schools, says the best educational partnerships hinge on one key factor: communication.

“Do you really know what’s on the mind of K-12 educators in this country?” Daggett asked a room full of NASA administrators during the summit. He added: “Because until you know what’s on their mind and they know what’s on your mind, you’re never going to be really good partners.”

Once an effective dialogue is in place, Daggett said, schools can begin working with partner organizations such as NASA and others to refine the current educational system, making it more relevant for a new generation of digital learners, the likes of which U.S. classrooms have not seen before.

“Kids today are being wired differently because of an intense and ongoing interaction with technology,” said Daggett. At home, they play video games and chat with friends on cell phones or via eMail. They listen to music on digital MP3 players and do their shopping on the internet. Technology is woven through almost every facet of their daily lives–that is, until they get to school, said Daggett, who added: “It’s almost as if, when kids come to school, we break them of the habit.”

Where some schools are working actively to embrace technology as a means of better preparing students for a changing future, he said, most institutions have been slow to adapt.

Not that it’s an easy task, he acknowledges. In an era when sweeping education reforms, such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have educators focusing more on standards and assessment than innovation, change can be a risky proposition for some institutions, particularly those with limited resources.

That’s where partnerships with groups like NASA and others can help, says Daggett. By tapping the expertise of scientists, engineers, and other professionals, he said, schools can work to meld real-world relevance and rigor into existing curricula, though it must be done carefully.

Given the myriad requirements and mandates currently facing schools, Daggett said, partners should not simply give educators another chore to do; rather, the challenge is to help balance the daily pressures of increased accountability with the potential benefits of change.

Though the quality of education in the nation’s schools continues to show modest gains, Daggett says, our current system is not equipped to handle the diverse and ever-changing needs of today’s tech-savvy learners.

“The problem is that our schools are what they used to be,” said Daggett. “And our kids are telling us that they are bored out of their ever-loving minds.”

Creating a global citizenry

Though technical skills likely will play an important role in positioning today’s students for success in the future workforce, they aren’t the only tools kids will need. As technology continues to erode geographic barriers, further expanding the reach of the new global economy, students also will have to become wise to the ways of the world–a world that, for all intents and purposes, is far larger than the one their parents grew up in.

“Global trends are shaping the context in which our students are learning,” said Vivien Stewart, vice president of education for the Asia Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating and improving Asian-American relations worldwide.

Stewart, who is considered an expert on how the rise of China, India, and other Asian nations is changing the U.S. economic landscape, said it’s imperative for schools to teach “global competencies.”

“Most economists don’t agree on much,” said Stewart, “but they do agree on one thing: Thirty years from now, 50 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product will come from China, India, and Japan.” That’s up from 18 percent currently.

“The relative weight of the U.S. is shifting, and we are going to have to work harder to maintain our economic predominance,” noted Stewart.

And students must be prepared. Apart from ramping up education in the STEM disciplines, she said, schools also have to improve cultural education efforts, ensuring that American students have the relative historical and social knowledge to work effectively with co-workers and colleagues from other parts of the world.

In a recent study presented by the Committee for Economic Development, titled “Education for Global Leadership,” researchers reported that a chief concern of many U.S. employers is hiring workers who are comfortable conducting business in a cross-cultural environment.

As companies continue to expand globally, Stewart said, there will be an increasing demand for workers who speak more than one language, as well as educated employees who are sensitive and respectful of cultural disparities. Across the globe, marketing messages and products must shift to make allowances for various interpretations. To compete, she said, companies–and their employees–must remain sensitive to, and aware of, such differences.

“We definitely need to ramp up math and science,” said Stewart, “but we also need mathematicians and scientists who can function in this new global environment.”

In many other countries, she said, students begin learning foreign languages in elementary school. In Australia, 25 percent of students now learn to speak an Asia language. Yet here in the U.S., most children do not begin learning foreign languages until high school.

“When students graduate, they are going to be working in other countries, so why not expose them to other countries while there are studying?” asked Stewart.

Just as strategic educational partnerships can benefit schools as they seek to improve STEM education, they also can be used to give today’s students a more worldly understanding, said Stewart. For schools that really want to get ahead, the challenge is to develop programs that combine the importance of STEM with cross-cultural sensitivity and communication. 

“The challenge is to give students enough of a sense of knowledge to function and operate effectively in other cultures,” she said. “There is a new skill set that is needed.”

Next steps

To understand these issues and how NASA can work with schools to prepare students for the challenges ahead, the agency has commissioned a series of “Futures Panels.”

The panels–composed of academics, scientists, and other concerned stakeholders from a variety of geographic locations–will meet throughout the year to discuss potential partnerships, explore new opportunities, and foster an ongoing dialogue at each of NASA’s 10 regional research centers.

At the end of the year, the group will release a report detailing its discussions and offering suggestions for how NASA can work with schools to accomplish its educational mission.

Links:

NASA

http://www.nasa.gov/

Asia Society

http://www.asiasociety.org/

International Center for Leadership in Education

http://www.daggett.com/

Education Technology Think Tank

http://www.et3online.org/

Net Generation of Youth

http://www.et3online.org/programs/ngy.cfm

Committee for Economic Development

http://www.ced.org/