Back when all of us were young, children used to gaze at the night sky and dream of being the first to walk on the moon. Today, kids stare at the stars and likely think about Mars in much the same way.
That would be especially appropriate this week because tomorrow, July 20, is the 40th anniversary of the Viking 1's landing on Mars -- when it became the first spacecraft to successfully accomplish that feat.
Of course, we're pursuing much more today, when it comes to Mars. It’s likely that the astronaut who will someday take that initial “one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind” on the Red Planet is sitting in a high school classroom in the United States right now, probably taking a summer science enrichment course.
David Gingerich, a senior staff engineer at Lockheed Martin, certainly hopes so. Recently, I spoke with him about the possibility of a crewed flight to Mars, and how we, as a nation, should teach our kids and retool our public education system to help make such a mission happen.
Gingerich, who believes a crewed mission may be possible by 2028, has been responsible for the operation and maintenance of flight software on five NASA space explorations, including two to Mars. As such, he has some strongly held views about the role public schoolteachers -- and entrepreneurs -- have to play in that effort. “We need teachers who can inspire, get students engaged and make them capable,” Gingerich says. “Let’s face it. If you graduate from high school now, and you don’t have a math and science background, you are going to have a hard time making it as an engineer.”
One way to inspire students, Gingerich says, is through business initiatives that provide touch points for students. Think of museums, practical, real-world experiences for teachers and classrooms with up-to-date technology as touch points, he says. “The things we remember are the goofy experiments physics teacher did,” he notes. “Those are the things that still get kids excited to learn.”
A touch point today, Gingerich explains, could involve GPS technology, which was born in the Space Age but is now found on every cell phone (as the Pokemon Go craze makes clear!). Drones are another source of student engagement. “[Just] one touch point doesn’t count, either,” the engineer continues “It really takes at least two or three, and starting in elementary school, for any of this to have an impact and influence a student’s future ambitions.”
Creating connections among technology innovators, then -- entrepreneurs and startup engineers as well as larger technology players -- can provide much needed real-world links and inspiration for the next generation and their teachers, Gingerich says.
The engineer adds that more needs to be done beyond simply promoting courses in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- to students and parents. For example, teachers need to be more exposed to innovative ideas outside the classroom that apply to learning.
“A challenge will always be how to keep teachers excited when they have so many other things to do, no time and poor equipment,” he points out. “We have to help solve that issue. Business can be the bridge for educators so they can see firsthand what will be expected of their students when they leave school.”
Gingerich cited a teacher professional development program Lockheed Martin is involved with in California, in which a coalition of businesses fund internships for educators, at various companies, and the teachers take their experiences back to the classroom. “One teacher we hosted created a science experiment for his class and has now been invited to the White House,” Gingerich says. “We need to connect more teachers with these kinds of opportunities.”
Indeed, parents and schools and the entrepreneurs who serve them need to encourage the following behaviors to help kids succeed in the future of space exploration, and in innovation generally:
Intellectual Curiosity. The students who become astronauts and space engineers are people who are never satisfied with what they already know. They are continuing to learn. This trait will be mandatory in the future, because technology is evolving so fast that knowing only one skill or tool quickly renders the learner as obsolete.
Exploration. Questions are not always binary -- as in "solving for x," or choosing between right and wrong. Sometimes, there is more to explore than meets the eye. Having the ability to keep searching and never being satisfied helps an individual become invaluable to his or her team.
Failing Better. Failing better means accepting, even embracing, and learning from failure. When innovating or risk-taking, scientific explorers always experience failure. That’s part of the process, the scientific method, and it shouldn’t kill curiosity or paralyze anyone from acting again. Very few minds get something right the first time. And even then it might be luck.
Intuition. We often call this the sixth sense -- the “spidy” sense. You know what that means: The numbers are right, but there’s still something that makes researchers scratch their heads? So, when this happens, do those researchers say: "Okay, let’s run with it?" Or, do they stop and double-check, go back through the process and their network to make sure everything is correct?
Of course, pride, passion and skills, such as creativity, communication and even a proper amount of paranoia, are vital. Inquiry-based learning -- or asking better questions -- is a notion many students need to master, too. Remember hypotheses, theses and theorems from your own geometry class?
“It’s okay for the teacher not to know all the answers,” Gingerich says. “We should be teaching inquisitiveness, thinking outside the box and about all the things that don’t have answers.
“After all, that’s what we’re doing in the space program a lot of the time,” he says. ”We’re solving problems that don’t have answers.”