Now that the ’7 minutes of terror‘ are over and the Curiosity rover has successfully landed on Mars, you shouldn’t miss the momentum that has been building for STEM and how it relates to space exploration. While NASA has faced steep budget cuts in recent times, the scientists, mathematicians, engineers and fabricators have made an extremely complex task a success with ingenuity, tenacity and cooperation. This mission and others over the years may represent the ultimate example of how different STEM disciplines and skills lead to accomplishment of a multifaceted, long term goal. Whether you teach Algebra, Robotics, Biology, Physics, Ag or Metal Shop, STEM education is all about doing deeper level projects that bring student motivation beyond the classroom and into their daily lives. The level of commitment by JPL team members for instance was far beyond a 9 to 5 workday, and by the same token we can expect the demands of rigorous, engaging and fun projects at school will cause students to think more about their classes than the few minutes they are scheduled to be there.
If you are heading up a large project such as FIRST robotics, Electrathon racing, or any other long term challenge with a specific deadline, it is worth studying the dynamics of how teams such as those at NASA work together toward a common goal. There are many other examples of such teams that are relevant to STEM of course, from NASCAR race teams to DARPA Grand Challenge competitors, and as you look at ways to structure the groups in your class to manage the tasks before them in a STEM project, try to see the similarities that you can pull from them to model your organization at school. It may span several teams in one class for a 2 week mouse trap car project. Or it could means multiple classes from different teachers for a kinetic sculpture project than takes a semester and a half. The success of Curiosity will still be on the minds of your students this fall, and enlisting their help in getting a diverse group to work hard toward a common goal will be much easier when they see how complex the task was that challenged the Curiosity team.
A climate of cooperation toward a common goal softens traditional barriers that we find among students and teachers as well. In an ideal STEM project, students will find themselves working on different aspects of a large project in multiple classes, bringing to bear multiple skill sets in a real world application. That sort of team work often requires curriculum realignment and revisions, and staff members who are involved need to all buy in to the model if it is going to happen. Breaking down the barriers of teacher to teacher cooperation is definitely more difficult than student barriers, and small steps usually required to avoid egos from being bruised. Your administration by this time has doubtless heard of STEM education and is likely looking for teachers to lead the charge. If you are in a leadership position among your staff, have friends among the staff who are, use casual conversations about things like Curiosity to help explain that schools can organize projects in a similar fashion, and STEM education provides a paradigm and justification for these sorts of changes to occur. The math teachers and shop teachers, art teachers and science teachers, technology teachers and history teachers can and should play a part in a STEM project this year. Try to make that a goal with the help of a cooperative adminstrator. Events such as what we have seen at NASA make it an easy topic to broach and difficult to argue with, particularly as education standards, and the common core move us in this direction as well.
STEM education will get a boost from NASA’s success in the popular media over the next few weeks, and teachers need to ride this wave toward change in the classroom. Below are a few videos that give a sense of what NASA has done to make Curiosity a success and some of the challenges they had to face. Use these videos in the classroom this fall, and maybe show one or two as a primer to STEM curriculum alignment at a staff development. STEM education needs to be less about platitudes and rhetoric, it needs to be a reality in the classroom-and that means it starts and ends with you.
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