NASA Chief: STEM Interest Needed to Reach Mars

Treating science like a fun sport and engineers as superstars can boost STEM education interest.
NASA Chief: STEM Interest Needed to Reach Mars
Colorado SWE Outreach Event
Middle school girls participate in a competition held by the Society of Women Engineers' Girls Exploring STEM, on May 6, 2016, in Colo. NASA is pushing for schools to introduce children to STEM fields at a young age to encourage their interest in related careers.

This article was first published by U.S. News & World Report By Tom Risen

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Monday said that the U.S. needs kids to get involved with science at the elementary school level to innovate ways to reach Mars by the 2030s, and that heroes in fields like space travel are needed to inspire new engineering students.

The NASA chief and former astronaut spoke during an event hosted by the Brookings Institution, advocating for a hands-on approach to pique interest in studying the science, math and technology that is crucial to the future of the space program. Inspiring elementary school kids to get into those fields is more effective at creating career engineers and other specialists than creating that interest in college, he said.

"Your space agency is on a journey to Mars. We need kids to create new tech that we are missing," Bolden said. "We can't get to Mars based on what we have today. We can go back to the moon and we will, but we have to go to Mars."

Interactive projects like working on robots or partnering with NASA to send projects to the International Space Station will be particularly useful to show female and minority students "that science and math and technology is not only is fun but that it is available to them," he said.

'Quit telling girls they can't learn math and science,' Charles Bolden said.Click To Tweet "Women today are more than 50 percent of the population. We believe you cannot leave that portion of the population behind and succeed."

Astronauts can be the role models needed to inspire kids to stick with science education said Dean Kamen, president of the nonprofit For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST. Kamen spoke alongside Bolden at Monday's event.

"It's not an education problem, it's a culture problem," Kamen said of the challenge to get kids interested in science studies. "In a free country you get the best of what you celebrate. And we celebrate to obsession two things: the world of sports and the world of entertainment."

FIRST uses that sports model to tailor team competitions for kids around the world by coordinating with schools, community groups and agencies like NASA. Their robotics competition on April 30 in St. Louis involved 20,000 students.

The science nonprofit is very popular among students in China, which Kamen said highlights an urgency and an opportunity for the U.S. to become more competitive on the global stage. Test scores from the most-recent Programme for International Student Assessment show U.S. students ranked 17th out of the 34 countries and school systems in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in reading, 27th in math and 20th in science. Data from the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index shows racial and gender gaps widening among students as well.

China's ascendancy as a scientific power or international challenges like global warming have the potential to motivate new generation of students, Kamen said. A similar "call to action" moment for the U.S., Kamen said, was the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 that galvanized investment and education in science to compete with the Soviet Union in the space race.

"I think we are heading for another Sputnik moment," Kamen said. "We could have a generation of kids worldwide, working together … on the real challenges the world is going to face."