What Motivates a Young Mind
It is no secret that interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education has been steadily declining in the U.S. for some time. As we enter the “innovation age,” there is real concern that the U.S. economy will feel the negative impact from the lack of a homegrown, technologically savvy workforce.
In a testimony before the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, the Boeing Company’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Administration, Rick Stephens, described America as a “nation falling further behind” in science and engineering education. He further stated, “Our industry needs more innovative young scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians to replace baby boomers as they retire.”
In 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology stated:
We must prepare students so they have a strong foundation in STEM subjects and are able to use this knowledge in their personal and professional lives. And we must inspire students so that all are motivated to study STEM subjects in school and many are excited about the prospect of having careers in STEM fields.
How can we inspire students to “study [STEM] subjects in school and [excite them] about the prospect of having careers in STEM fields” you ask? By example.
Those of us who have pursued a career in a STEM field often trace that decision to a single, often the same, moment in time—the first time we saw man leave the earth. Names befitting action heroes, like Armstrong and Buzz, were lifted into space and into the collective consciousness of school kids everywhere. We marveled at the endeavor and were awestruck by the immense technical knowledge and skill on display as these marvels of smoke and fire lifted man into the precariousness of space. NASA, the Apollo missions, the Space Shuttle and the Hubble Space Telescope have inspired countless to follow in the footsteps of the men and women who built the complex machinery that pushed the bounds of what mankind was capable of achieving—and they inspired students everywhere. Additionally, the example they set forth may have supplied the motivation necessary to forge ahead, with trepidation, into the unfamiliar territory of calculus, electromagnetic theory and differential equations.
Today we find ourselves without a manned space flight program in the U.S. Some fear that the next half-century will lack the inspirational focal points of the past—the spectacle of a rocket launch or the images of the first steps on another celestial body. However, the truth may be that we are at the dawn of a new beginning in the exploration of space.
Dreamers are taking up the challenge through privately owned companies, and they are forging ahead in exciting ways promising the better, more efficient solutions that are the hallmark of American business and innovation. Currently, a rocket dubbed the Falcon 9 built by Elon Musk, PayPal founder and CEO/CTO of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), sits on a launch pad in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, powered by nine Merlin engines (designed and built in-house) that have a combined total thrust of 1.1 million pounds per foot, is set to blast off carrying the Dragon space capsule to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX has had many firsts in its short history—including being the only non-governmental entity to ever send and recover a spacecraft from orbit, and now, with the Falcon 9, SpaceX will attempt to become the first non-governmental entity to complete a mission to the ISS orbiting 230 miles above the earth. This event may prove to be one of those pivotal moments in history that can only be truly understood in hindsight. This will mark a new era. While the Dragon will not carry human cargo on this flight, the capsule is currently being “man-rated” to carry seven astronauts into low earth orbit. Recently Elon Musk tweeted, “5 years max before we fly civilians.”
EDIT (5/31/12): “Dragon Returns to Earth”
Image courtesy of stock.xchng.