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To MARS with MER - Educators

"To MARS with MER"
Goal and Objectives

Why "To MARS with MER"? Why now?
NSF's Science and Engineering Indicators 2002 shows that the United States finances 44% of the total worldwide investment in Research and Development, an impressive figure which is equal to the combined total investments of Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany and Italy. But physical science and engineering in the United States receive comparably less funding than in other developed nations, and are trending down in comparison to the life sciences. While the number of 24-year-olds with science and engineering degrees is growing in other nations, it is stagnant or declining in the United States. The U.S. therefore leans heavily on foreign-born, American-trained scientists, many of whom return home when their own nations begin to develop science and technology sectors of their own. The result is that aerospace and associated high tech industries are experiencing a particularly dramatic and troubling demographic phenomenon. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe testified to the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry that his agency and private companies have an "extremely mature workforce …Almost one-third of NASA's workforce will retire in the next three to five years." The Space Foundation's Elliot G. Pulham said that few of today's best students seem interested in aerospace. "A generation raised with the expectation that humans should 'boldly go where no one has gone before' is bored with the same old airplanes, same old rockets, the same old low-Earth orbit stuff… The ever-increasing U.S. aversion to risk has become manifest in the government contracting process, spawning a risk-averse culture within aerospace which college graduates find dull, uninteresting, boring and unchallenging in comparison to other high-tech fields of endeavor." Some groups are not "bored," but rather excluded. While the nation's general workforce has become more inclusive and diverse on the whole, the science and engineering workforce continues to look distinctly "male and pale" (Rita Colwell, Howard University, March 2001). In Spectrum: A report on underrepresented minorities in astronomy, (AAS) Keivan Stassum reports that according to the 2000 census, African- and Hispanic Americans together comprise 24% of the population, with Hispanics the single fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. By comparison, these groups make up only 8% of the science and engineering labor force, 6% of science and engineering PhDs, and less than 4% of tenure track faculty. In the discipline of astronomy, a chart prepared by the AAS's Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, shows that in 1997 there were zero African-American PhDs granted, and just 2 to Hispanic-Americans. Next year there was an improvement: one African-American PhD, with the numbers of Hispanic American PhDs holding steady at 2! Not even all of the white population is being encouraged to pursue high tech careers. "As long as conservative government contracting teams prefer to hire gray-bearded, pin-striped, brown-shoed baby boomers," testified the Space Foundation's candid Elliot Pulham, "instead of blue-haired, tattooed, nose-ringed youth of Generation X, the same old conservative ideas will prevail and the space and aerospace workforce will continue to age." Clearly America is not capitalizing on the talents of its population.

Other testimony emphasized that the U.S. education system is producing fewer and fewer college graduates with the math, science and technical skills required for aerospace and other high tech industries, at just the moment an ever larger segment of the economy demands just those skills. And while the United States continues to lead the world in scientific excellence in many of its tertiary institutions and in the achievements of the nation's premier research agencies, students' performance in secondary level math and science have continued to decline between the elementary grades and graduation from high schools (TIMSS, 1996, and Beatty et al, NAP, 1997.) As S&E Indicators reported, "the country's international economic competitiveness ultimately rests on the U.S. labor force's own capacity for innovation and productivity." "Solving the problem of producing more high-quality, homegrown scientists and engineers depends upon solving the problems with elementary and secondary education" (S&E Indicators).

The events of 9/11/2001 and after only emphasize how urgently our society needs to lead the world in advanced technologies and innovative engineering. The February 2001 report of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21 st Century (chaired by former senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart) said, "the inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war we might imagine." Addressing these problems will require not just support for those students whose schools and fortunate personal circumstances already result in high achievement in math and science, but also a commitment to inspire and educate those traditionally underrepresented and underserved. It also requires informal science and technology education, alongside in-school teaching and learning. To be effective, materials must excite young people of diverse learning styles (i.e. not just "book-learners"), and engage members of our nation's increasingly diverse communities. Recent research (including EDC's evaluation of P2K's 1995-1998 IMD activities) has found clear evidence that positive attitudes and enhanced motivation result from closer home-school connections, where parents and caregivers express interest in "school" subjects. Such an undertaking requires creating contemporary learning opportunities using the most powerful instructional and communications resources available, such as video and the Internet.

"To MARS with MER" is just such a suite of experiences and opportunities, a highly accessible human story in which science and engineering content is inherent and explicit, full of engaging characters, working hard but enjoying-as instrument P.I. Steve Squyres puts it-"the adventure of a lifetime." It's an inside look at a project where risk is inevitable, and managing risk creatively is the key to success. As TMwM Senior Consultant Donna Shirley has written, creativity is to engineering as balance is to a tightrope walker: "if engineers are not creative, they're not engineers. How you spark creativity is a big challenge... Generally the best way to do that is through projects in which they have to solve problems." And the Mars Exploration Rovers mission is full of problems, and TMwM is full of memorable images of those problems being solved, often in real time brainstorming drawing on the participants' wide-ranging knowledge of math, science and engineering. Often this work proceeds in groups drawing on diverse talents and different backgrounds. Shirley adds, "I think groups are inherently more creative than individuals in a lot of circumstances… Because if everybody is working to different sets of rules, then somebody might say, 'Well, who told you you had to stay inside the lines?' So diverse teams are creative teams." TMwM shows that the tattooed machinist, the systems engineer with slick pompadour and ear-rings in both lobes, the young African-American responsible for thermal systems are all critically important to the success of the mission. Seeing them in context and in action allows their personalities and personal stories to emerge in ways more memorable and meaningful than if just read about in a textbook or newspaper. By interacting online and during the Daytime programs with attractive and diverse characters using science and engineering as part of their daily work, questions of careers-"How did they get started? What did they experience at school, or home, to encourage them? Why couldn't I do that?"-are also raised. Such encounters can be crucial: James Thomson, pioneer of stem cell research, traces his passion for science to a conversation with an uncle, who was an enthusiastic rocket scientist: "Imagine, they pay me to do this!" (Time, August 20, 2001, p27) Oliver Sacks traces his own fascination with science to his "Uncle Tungsten," full of stories and hands-on experiences with everyday and exotic objects. Given the number of today's scientists who were launched on their careers by watching the Apollo landings on the Moon, or series like Carl Sagan's COSMOS, we believe that "virtual" encounters can lead to real results, opening students' and even lifelong learners' eyes to significant new possibilities.

"To MARS with MER" intends to excite and inform both general and specific targeted audiences through the story of a mission that is not at all risk averse, where creative contributions from all kinds of Americans are welcome and celebrated, and in which math, science and engineering serve deep human curiosity about our place in the Cosmos.