Archive for the ‘Education’ category

Reaching out to the Interested Public

February 21, 2010

Emily Lakdawalla over at the Planetary Society blog posted the other day about a talk that she gave at the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) about how to get the most bang for your buck with public outreach. The main point was that the most successful outreach efforts do not necessarily target The Public as a whole, but rather cater to members of the public that are already passionate about space.

This might seem counterintuitive: what good does it do to preach to the choir? But Emily makes a very good case. In particular, members of the interested public go on to share their enthusiasm more broadly, amplifying NASA’s outreach impact with no extra effort from NASA! If you’re interested, Emily has made the slides from her talk available here, and recorded the audio which is available here.

Be a Martian!

November 17, 2009

Fact #1: As a Mars scientist, I am incredibly spoiled. There are so many missions to Mars right now sending back so much data, that even if they all went silent tomorrow, it would be decades before we managed to look at all the data and figure out what it’s telling us.

Fact #2: There are lots of people out there (I’m looking at you, loyal readers!) who would love to be able to actively participate in exploring Mars. I mean, have you seen the stuff that the folks at UnmannedSpaceflight have managed to put together? They do more with the data from Mars than a lot of scientists!

So, given those two facts, you can see why I think the new “Be a Martian” collaboration between NASA and Microsoft is a great idea. Check out this excerpt from the press release:

Drawing on observations from NASA’s Mars missions, the “Be a Martian” Web site will enable the public to participate as citizen scientists to improve Martian maps, take part in research tasks, and assist Mars science teams studying data about the Red Planet.

“We’re at a point in history where everyone can be an explorer,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With so much data coming back from Mars missions that are accessible by all, exploring Mars has become a shared human endeavor. People worldwide can expand the specialized efforts of a few hundred Mars mission team members and make authentic contributions of their own.”

How cool is that? It’s a really brilliant idea, and I hope it goes well. A similar project was pioneered by galactic astronomers who had way too many pictures of galaxies to deal with, so they opened up the database to the public in the form of GalaxyZoo. It was a tremendous success, with thousands of people helping to classify millions of galaxies.

I just created my account and played around a bit, and it looks like a very user-friendly introduction to Mars science. You can contribute in two main ways: aligning images to contribute to a global map, and also counting craters. Both of these tasks can sort of be done by computers, but humans will always be better.

There’s more to the Be a Martian site than just work though, there are also lots of goodies like videos and Mars wallpapers, and great information about Mars. There is even a “movie theater” where you can watch the first few episodes of a series of videos called “The Martians”, that focus on people from all over the country who are involved with Mars, ranging from members of the rover teams to enthusiastic amateurs to actors putting on a play about Mars! There are more episodes on the way, and I encourage you to keep watching… you might see someone you recognize. ;)

Bottom line, it looks like a great site, and a great way to get involved in Mars exploration and learn about everyone’s favorite Red Planet and the people who are fascinated by it. What are you waiting for? Head on over and sign up! I’ll see you on Mars!


If This is Socialist Propaganda, Please, Send More

September 9, 2009

Surely by now you have heard that president Obama attempted to brainwash our nation’s children with socialist propaganda yesterday. It is apalling, isn’t it? An outrage! But have you actually heard or read what he said? I’ll let his words speak for themselves:

I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself. Every single one of you has something that you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a great writer — maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper — but you might not know it until you write that English paper — that English class paper that’s assigned to you. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor — maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or the new medicine or vaccine — but you might not know it until you do your project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a senator or a Supreme Court justice — but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

Oh, but it gets worse:

What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical-thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents and your skills and your intellect so you can help us old folks solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that — if you quit on school — you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

Problem solving skills? Critical thinking? Responsibility? MY kids will learn no such things!

The truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject that you study. You won’t click with every teacher that you have. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right at this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That’s okay. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. J.K. Rowling’s — who wrote Harry Potter — her first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. He lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.”

No one’s born being good at all things. You become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. The same principle applies to your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right. You might have to read something a few times before you understand it. You definitely have to do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength because it shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and that then allows you to learn something new. So find an adult that you trust — a parent, a grandparent or teacher, a coach or a counselor — and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and they founded this nation. Young people. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google and Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask all of you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a President who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?

Patience? Perseverance? Willingness to ask for help? Sounds like socialism to me!

Ok. Seriously. In case the title didn’t clue you in, I’m being somewhat sarcastic here. I think it’s great that the president is willing to address students and encourage them to get an education. I think it is absurd to call this socialist propaganda. Is it US propaganda? You betcha: it’s all about helping this country become better by helping its people become better. But this is pretty much the most benign form of propaganda I can think of. It has none of the flag-waving jingoism and self-congratulation that many people mistake for patriotism, just an honest message that education is important for the future and that it is hard work.

It’s a message that more people should take to heart. Don’t think for one second that Obama thought he was talking only to students in this speech. This is a message to everyone. Education and hard work are key for the future of the US and the future of the world. How do you think we landed people on the moon? Education and hard work. How is it that the Mars rovers were so well-designed that they are still operating after more than 5 years on the surface of Mars? Education and hard work. When we send humans back to the moon and on to Mars, it will take education and hard work.

These values are the core of what NASA does, and they are at the heart of every challenge, both technical and social, facing the world. If the problems were easy, they would be solved already. But they aren’t, and we need to learn more and work hard to solve them.

As far as I can tell, protesting against the message of this speech must mean that people oppose either education or hard work or both. I’m sure there are people out there who do oppose those things, but are they really so proud of that? Or perhaps protesters just don’t like the idea of the president speaking to students when they should be learning their lessons? What lesson, particularly so early in the school year, is more important than the message that education is important, that hard work pays off, and that it is ok to ask for help?

Of course, the real reason that people protest this speech is because they dislike the president. I admit, I’d probably be annoyed at first if I heard that George W. Bush was going to be addressing the nation’s students. But if he had given the speech that Obama just did, I would commend it too, because the message was not political. It’s just good advice. There’s really no rational way to argue against the message here. For some reason, people assume that if someone they dislike says something, then it must be socialist propaganda. Well, if this is socialist propaganda, please send more.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy has written his own post about the absurdity of the protests over this little speech that I encourage you to check out. I also encourage you to check out this Fact Check article that discusses Obama’s speech, as well as the speeches to school children given by George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Update: It looks like NASA administrator Charles Bolden agrees that education is crucial for the future of NASA. Check out his latest Op-Ed in the Orlando Sentinel.