Next Big Thing

Space Science Education. Bringing Classrooms To The Stars

Oct 24, 2018

*The illustration to this article is the Student rocket launch photo report by Noosphere Engineering School

If you want to predict where the aerospace industry will be in 20-40 years – look at the quality of the education in this area. Since the aerospace industry is very technology intensive and has a high cost for any errors, a qualified workforce become a mission-critical factor. Let’s see what the origins of the modern space education are and what challenges need to be met.

How space industry changed the US education

Not only space historians, but an entire generation remembers the Space Race of the 20th century. The two Cold War opponents, the United States and the Soviet Union, contended for supremacy in aerospace technology.

The Space Race began in 1955 when both countries announced that they intend to launch satellites. Among two rivals, the Soviet Union was the first. On October 4, 1957, Sputnik 1 orbited earth and became the first artificial Earth satellite.

Even if Sputnik was a relatively simple satellite, its launch shocked the United States. There were a couple of theories about how Russia could become the acknowledged space leader. The dominant theory was that the Soviet Union had better secondary education.

Since 1945, American schools had been working with the concept of life-adjustment education, which devoted less time to the exact sciences. In late 1956, historian Arthur Bestor wrote that “In the light of Sputnik ‘life-adjustment education’ turns out to have been perilously close to ‘death adjustment’ for our nation and our children.”

In March 1958, Life magazine provided a striking example for this discussion. A five-part story about a Russian and an American student was published. It compared the knowledge levels, academic achievements, and lifestyles of Alexei Kutzkov and Stephen Lapekas. Life magazine published photos of Alexei studying and doing experiments in chemistry and physics. The text explained that teachers taught Alexei material considered too difficult for American high schools.

The US government decided to implement reforms in engineering and science education so the nation could recover its technological footing. President Eisenhower appealed to Congress to match educational programs with national defense needs. The result was the National Defense education act of 1958, which increased the amount of science and math being taught.

At some point, as American astronomer Carl Sagan noted, planets transformed from far away dots in the sky to part of the cultural landscape. Space symbols appeared in movies, video games, comic books, and television. The Hubble Space Telescope started to appear in popular books, magazines, and on CD covers.

According to professor of astronomy Andrew Fraknoi, people who promoted space science education in the USA had a challenging task before them. He mentions one of the programs aimed to enrich space science education, performed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. It is called project ASTRO and teaches astronomers to collaborate with local teachers.

To try to have the largest effect possible, a huge government initiative had to be undertaken.

The NASA Space Science office began to allocate tens of million of dollars to a variety of public outreach and educational programs.

Space Science educational initiatives

Since the 2000s, the space industry has transformed from a government monopoly to a mixed ownership system, because dozens of private companies have started designing and deploying competitive space systems. But, when we are talking about space educational programs, NASA remains the leader of this field.

It is hard to even summarize the whole scope of NASA educational programs over recent decades. One that stands out is NASA’s Office of STEM engagement, which works in different educational areas: primary and secondary school students involvement, higher education improvement, contributions to online and informal education. As NASA points out, they intend to raise “a generation prepared to code, calculate, design, and discover its way to a new era of American innovation.”

All NASA education projects are listed alphabetically on the official administration’s website. According to NASA’s Strategic Plan, the agency places emphasis on three education goals:

– to strengthen the US future workforce by developing a STEM knowledge and skills needed to achieve the U.S. Space Exploration Policy

– to spark the interest and retain students in STEM disciplines to encourage them to strive for NASA’s future scientific, engineering and technical missions

– to engage the general public and all NASA stakeholders to increase Americans’ technology and science literacy

Another huge US organization that educates and connects the global space community is the Space Foundation. This nonprofit organization creates educational programs for teachers, manages the Space Foundation Discovery Center, organizes an annual Space Symposium and creates the Space Report as an authoritative guide to space activities.

In Europe, one of the biggest space education stakeholders is the European Space Agency (ESA). Its Education Office is helping young Europeans from 6 to 28, to get interested in technology and science, creating a qualified workforce for European space activities.

ESA’s Education Office works in such fields as hands-on projects for students, support to teachers, running international cooperation activities, supporting student participation in conferences and workshops, and outreach initiatives forming the bridge between ESA projects, teachers and students.

Besides government and nonprofit organizations, space education is a field of interest for the corporate sector. For example, US companies such as Northrop Grumman Corporation and The Dow Chemical Company invest millions of dollars in educational programs in the STEM fields.

Dow engages its future workforce through the Global Citizenship program, where employee volunteers share their expertise with teachers and students. Northrop Grumman Corporation has a Foundation which sponsors scholarships for middle school students and teachers from the different countries to attend Space Camp, a hands-on learning program which is based at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

US security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin has a national educational program which is called Generation Beyond. This program helps students to pursue STEM careers with the use of virtual reality, video lessons, and interactive learning games.

There are cases when space education becomes business itself. DreamUp is a public-benefit corporation which is “bringing space into classrooms and classrooms into space”. DreamUp is a sister company of NanoRacks, a private company that develops products for commercial use in space. The corporation creates educational and media programs, organizes space launches and sponsors STEM career development events.

What’s the story with space education in Ukraine?

The Ukrainian aerospace industry has its own historically formed story. As a former Soviet Union state, it was a hub of science and technology leading the countries space programs from behind closed doors. Since Ukraine’s independence 27 years ago, its space industry has been underdeveloped. Now it is being developing considerably owing to private space companies innovative products. The question of developing a highly skilled workforce has become a more and more urgent matter.  It is apparent now that at least one generation has been taken out of the engineering education chain.

According to the Ukrainian ministry of education, the most popular specializations among high school graduates in 2018 are study of language and literature (almost 60 thousands of applications), law (almost 59 thousand), management (36 thousand), and computer science (27 thousand). Each and every year engineering faculty has empty state-financed openings (the physics and astronomy specialty has only 764 applications). So, how can space education become popular again when the younger generation doesn’t see career opportunities in this industry?

The actual challenge is to motivate young people and let them see how engineering knowledge and skills may be applied in current and future projects. This can be achieved by virtue of practical educational programs and a close connection to business.

Such countries as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and South Korea practice dual education systems where students receive theoretical training at universities and practice in industry. According to Ukrainian government representatives, a dual education system in Ukraine will not be implemented earlier than in 5 years.

Ukrainian manufactures and colleges have formed a system of so-called continuous education when secondary-school students get a specialized space education at aerospace centers, then enter universities and become space industry specialists. But, this system lacks an inverse relationship when working specialists go back to schools and universities to share their knowledge. Of course, universities should also be outfitted with the newest technologies and equipment. How can we build this ecosystem?

Noosphere educational experience in Ukraine

In 2014, Max Polyakov, Noosphere Ventures Managing Partner, established the Noosphere Engineering School (NES) which works with the most progressive technical universities of Ukraine and provides young engineers with equipment, and technical, legal and marketing support.

The Noosphere Engineering School has created a network of educational hubs for students and young scientists who came to implement their ideas or join the teams. The main directions of this educational project are space technology, medicine, alternative energies, robotics, effective natural resource use, etc.

Since NES was founded, more than 6 thousands of students have taken part in its educational projects and startup activities. More than 60 mentors have helped them to get valuable knowledge and practice.

As for today, NES students have developed 38 hardware and software projects. Developing CanSat launch vehicles is among them. Students have developed satellite prototypes and launch vehicles that have been tested and are now available for demonstration.

At the initiative of Max Polyakov, the Noosphere Engineering School organizes a space tournament for students, called Star Track. Twice a year, participants develop their knowledge of satellite hardware and launch vehicles while competing for prizes.

To sum up:

Despite different countries having their own aerospace industry history and particular characteristics, engaging the younger generation to pursue engineering careers is the priority for both governments and enterprises. In North America, Europe and the former Soviet Union, we can notice various education approaches, which depend on the country’s goals and requirements. Engineering also remains as one of the founding disciplines. After a short break, Ukraine has started to gain steam in STEM education development. But to push on to the next level of the space industry, we have to reconsider the whole educational system in Ukraine. Because even if educational programs don’t produce quick results, they form the foundation for future space industry leaders.

See also:

How New Business Models Will Disrupt Old Space Industry

How AR and VR shape new space exploration age