It's no secret that America is going to need many more young people to pursue science and technology professions in the future. As we celebrate National Lab Day on May 12, we have an opportunity for people currently in these careers to work with students and teachers and get them excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. But National Lab Day is more than just one single day in the year. It's really a collaborative movement to support people who work in our classrooms to inspire tomorrow’s innovators.
I have a particular interest in activities like this. I was born and raised in Columbia, SC – the son of two public school teachers who, despite very long hours and modest wages, loved each and every day of their work. They made the hard choice to remain in public education because they knew it was their opportunity to inspire thousands of students and to give them the foundation they would need to take their places in national, state, and local leadership. My parents’ dedication instilled in me a deep and personal passion for education.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to follow in my parents’ footsteps for a day and work with Lisa Hedgepeth’s fifth grade students at Langdon Education Campus, a school located in Washington, DC. These students have been studying the solar system, and I had the opportunity to share with them my experience of living and working in space as a NASA astronaut before I became the NASA Administrator. We spent time discussing Newton’s Laws of Motion with me giving them examples of ways in which we are able to demonstrate those laws real-time while in the weightless environment of space. We had an energetic discussion on how these laws are present in everyday life.
After this opening exchange, NASA education staff and I joined the students in their adventure to become rocket scientists for a day, as we built large paper rockets and test flew them using a high-power launcher. Following their rockets’ flight, the students evaluated their designs, modified them, and flew them again to determine if their changes affected the rocket's performance. It was amazing to see these young future engineers at work – to see the determination on their faces as they designed their rocket and the ensuing pride as they saw their rockets successfully launch.
NASA as an agency has embraced National Lab Day and has scheduled activities at schools throughout the week supported by volunteers from its field centers across the nation and from its headquarters here in Washington DC. For instance, Kennedy Space Center in Florida is hosting an educational event for students from local-area high schools who will learn about NASA and the benefits of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, fields related to our world and beyond.
There is a crisis in the United States that stems from the gap between the nation’s growing need for scientists, engineers, and other technically skilled workers, and our supply. This crisis in education, if not resolved, will contribute to future declines in qualified employees to meet demands in critical career fields that affect U.S. global competitiveness and the national economy. However, seeing the engagement and enthusiasm of those fifth grade students, I am hopeful that given the opportunity, our youth shall be inspired and motivated to consider STEM careers.
I have said this before -- NASA inspires the next generation through our compelling missions, but we must do more. We will continue to move things to the next level by directly exposing students to dynamic STEM activities that form the basis of our work. When students can get involved directly with NASA's missions in all their diversity, they just might take that next step to join us and take part in the nation's future in exploration. And National Lab Day really gets students involved.
A direct compliment to National Lab Day is a new project that I have directed to be implemented this summer, the Summer of Innovation project, which supports the President’s Educate to Innovate campaign. This is NASA’s first initiative supporting intensive STEM summer learning opportunities for middle school students and teachers focused on students who are underrepresented, underserved and underperforming in STEM.
I hope that this summer thousands of students across the country will feel the same excitement that the students at Langdon Education Campus felt yesterday as they learned first-hand what it was like to tackle a design challenge like an engineer – a real rocket scientist! And that’s just the launch pad for much more to come.
Charlie Bolden is the Administrator of NASA