Monday, December 03, 2007

Space, Space Prizes, and Education

Presidential candidate Barack Obama has a plan to fund an education program in part by postponing NASA's Constellation program by 5 years. That's the program to replace the Shuttle with Ares I/Orion and COTS vehicles, and to return to the Moon.

I'm not the biggest advocate of Ares I/Orion, and in fact I wouldn't mind if it were replaced with more COTS, space prizes, robotic/satellite science missions, use and encouragement of commercial space, and small X vehicle demonstrators. I actually think that could be done in a way that offers huge benefits to education while also providing a lot of benenfits to science, commerce, the environment, and national security.

For example, a NASA program that really emphasizes (and funds) the types of student space prizes I have listed on the right (and discussed in many posts) could be very productive educationally while being quite cost-effective. Student space prizes can get a lot of students involved in learning math, science, engineering, communication, and teamwork. The prizes themselves could also be in a form that helps education. For example, they can be in the form of scholarships, or for large school teams perhaps in financial rewards for the winning schools. They can be designed so they help students and schools in financial need, but that show that they are winners nonetheless.

A NASA program that dramatically expands the NASA Centennial Challenges program could have great benefits to university teams. It would also benefit younger students that aspire to university work and that get involved with the K-12 events that usually go along with the bigger Centennial Challenges.

At another level, having NASA offer lots of real high-altitude plane/balloon/rocket flights, suborbital flights, or even orbital rides for student experiments, and that gives incentives to actually personally reach space like Teachers in Space, with rides for members of each Congressional district and additional rides to encourage the educational districts in the greatest need, could be a great boost to inspire math and science education.

Adding to that more science missions with university participation and analysis, more modest ground-based telescopes that serve both researchers and students of all ages, and enough emphasis on commercial transportation that students still see the human side of spaceflight progressing, and you've started something dramatic in the educational world.

To do this, you just need to make education, in the context of real space commerce, science, and exploration, NASA's goal. Oh, don't forget to emphasize the entrepreneurial side of space commerce, since that's what gets a lot of young people interested in space, math, science, and education in general.

All of this could be done using the Ares I/Orion budget, probably with funds left over for museum upgrades and other educational improvements. A lot of it could even be done in conjunction with sponsors and allied organizations.

On the other hand, I'm quite skeptical that adding the Constellation budget to a pure Federal education program would have much benefit, since it would be such a small drop in the education bucket.

Anyway, what was I getting around to? Oh, yes, the whole point of this is to link to an education web site that addresses technology in the classroom. Among other things, it discusses the Google Lunar X PRIZE:

The Infinite Thinking Machine (ITM) is designed to help teachers and students thrive in the 21st century. Through an active blog, an Internet TV show, and other media resources, the ITM shares a "bazillion practical ideas" for turning the infinite universe of information into knowledge. It is part of the Google Educators network that offers Goggle Earth, Weekly Reader, and Lunar X/prize. Lunar X/Prize's space education content is designed to get your students interested in math, science, and history.

Yes, not only does the Google Educators site show the Lunar X PRIZE education site, but also other space-related software like Google Earth and Sketchup (used within Google Earth). There's also a student Open Source Software Competition by Google (this is NOT the $10M Google phone software contest I mentioned recently).