Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Final Questions

Well, our "final" assignment has been posted for a couple of months, and our final responses are due by Saturday. So, in classical college student form, I have waited until the last minute!

As much as I'd like to make this a narrative summary, the questions are diverse enough that covering them all in a narrative form would seem forced. Plus, answering them in the usual essay-question form is easier, and I'm lazy that way! ;)

We have to answer this series of ten questions:

1. How will you translate your experiences in the Mojave to your students?

Obviously, I don't have students, yet...I'm still a student myself. However, my target teaching audience will be at a level where NASA really hasn't been concentrating much. Pretty much all of the educational outreach programs are targeted at the K-12 levels. My audience will probably be at least the junior or community college level, and hopefully at the undergraduate or graduate level.

At the 13+ educational level, the challenges become less of getting your students to "buy into the dream" and more of keeping them focused on a career where they will be truly at the forefront of their field. When they start looking at US Government general pay scales, the incentive to work for NASA evaporates pretty quickly.

Realistically, the salary factor (or lack thereof) comes into play for pretty much any pure science or research field. The challenge of a teacher at the college level is in guiding their students into fields where they will be happiest. The almighty Dollar goes a long way toward satisfaction it that respect, but leads to a lot of people questioning their career choice ten or so years down the road (ahem...).

When we start putting people in Lunar and Martian research colonies, we're going to want our best and brightest. The additional incentive of simply making students aware of the incredible opportunities, as well as the pure diversity and variety of the experiences available to a pure research scientist, just might be enough to swing some of those brilliant lights NASA's way.

"Yeah, you're only making $90k with a PhD and 5 years of experience, but're working on MARS!" ;)

2. Describe your personal changes in your outlook on science, teaching, and science research?

Realistically, my outlook on any of the three didn't change much. I entered the Spaceward Bound expedition with a very good idea of what to expect, and wasn't disappointed.

If anything, I was able to experience a much wider variety of sciences than I anticipated. There was very little pure theoretical- and astro-physics (my personal field) research, and much more chemestry, biology and geology. I know that if I am going to pursue a career in astrobiology, I will need to be well versed in more than just pure physics. If I found out that I wasn't comfortable with the extended fields of study, then perhaps I would need to re-assess my current scholastic goals. Luckily, I greatly enjoyed every one of the research projects I participated in, boding well for my future pursuits.

3. What was most effective about how the Expedition went?

There were a couple of aspects which really stood out as being well run, or as having the most potential. First, the general structure of the program, the scheduling, facilities and logistics were exceptional. We (the "teachers") had every opportunity to get up to our necks in field research during the day, and have the time to discuss what we did with our groups after dinner. Yes, we didn't get much sleep, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice!

My small group, led by Geoff Hammond, was a critical part of the program. Having the previous years' teachers as our experienced group leaders, kept us focused on the real reason we were in the Mojave, to relay our experiences on to our students. With all the work we were doing during the day, it would have been easy to become too immersed in the science and lose focus. Geoff set the example, telling us about how he was able to translate his experiences in the Atacama into lessons for his students, and helping us to find ways to pass on our Mojave experiences to our own students.

Finally, the science was outstanding. If the individual showed interest, the researchers and scientists didn't pull any punches when we joined their groups for the day. We had the option to go out and do real research, not pre-made "toy" projects, and get real results. If we showed interest, and the slightest bit of competence, the research leads treated us as intellectual peers, and gave us the opportunity to experience field work as it was meant to be.

4. What could be done differently with Spaceward Bound? What other experiences could be offered?

MORE science less "fluff"!

The highlight of the program is, after all, the scientific experience. The teachers being brought in all have college degrees, most with a minimum of science curriculum, and should be treated as full-fledged research assistants. Put us/them to work! It doesn't even have to be all field work, either. Data analysis, lab work, even some print research, finding similar published works, are all parts of the scientific process, and should be part of Spaceward Bound.

I felt that much of the "fluff" such as the basic biology, chemistry and geology should have been moved to the webcasts, or maybe passed on by bringing the teachers in for a couple of days of "prep" work at Ames before we headed out to the site.

Once we got on site, we should have been able to jump right into the work being done by the scientists there.

Sure, the tours and "fun" activities were entertaining, but if those types of activities are going to be included, they should also have a strong science element as well. The baloon rides were great (I would guess -- I never went), but how about letting the teachers get in on the data analysis -after- the baloon lands. Did anyone actually see the IR pictures that were taken?

The rover was a fun toy, but how will mechanical and communication breakdowns, like the ones we had in the Mojave be handled on Mars? What about the off-the shelf components we were using? How will they be modified for extra-terrestrial use? etc...

5. Were the pre-expedition broadcasts helpful?  Suggestions for improvements?

Sort of. The first couple were very informative. They had the solid science I was referring to above. Although, I would have liked to have seen more reading assignments, possibly even some more of the published papers. The homework was lightweight, and didn't really force us to really learn about the topics. Even if we opted to go into depth on the chosen material, particularly the "science themes" homework, the connection was never made between the research we did for the broadcasts, and the work that was planned for the field.

I also have a technical complaint. The resolution of the broadcast was low enough that reading the slides was impossible. Sure, I ended up downloading the Powerpoint presentations and following along that way, but it was inconvenient.

There were also frequent sound issues, drop outs, extraneous noises, and occasional cross-talk with busy signals and phone lines.

Similarly, I would have liked to have seen the chat room be a real chat room. I would have liked to have seen my fellow participants there, and maybe had some discussions between us, instead of having it set up as an e-mail service to the moderator.

6. What did you get out of the personal interaction with scientists and other teachers?  How will it affect your teaching?

Ok, I'll admit it. I'm a science geek. I actually found listening to the late-night discussion between Drs McKay, Nienow and Boston about the potential of using mathematical simulations to model the geometric formation of plant growths to be one of the highlights of my trip. It was complex math combined with computer modeling combined with biology -- HELLO!? -- How cool is that?

Yeah, yeah...I know. It takes a certain mindset to embrace your inner geek. The scientists there had it down. The teachers had a different agenda. They were there for their students. While many of them shared the enthusiasm for the science, their first priority was to get this cutting-edge science back to their students.

I can't recall how many times I heard one of the teachers say "My students would love this!" or "How can I do this experiment with my kids back home?"

7. How can NASA support the next group of teachers and the Spaceward Bound program?

I think I covered the major part of my suggestions for the science part of the program in my answers to #s 3 and 4 above.

As for the logistic support, we had it easy...Catered meals, hot showers, indoor accomodations, there wasn't much more we could ask for. I drove down from San Jose, so my transportation needs were minimal. However, it seemed that the airport transfer process was reasonably well organized.

8.  Estimate the number of people who watched the webcast? (school, family, etc.) Provide a breakdown of who watched?

I have no idea. I didn't expect to be a part of the broadcast, as I don't have any students, so outside of a pointer to the Spaceward Bound! page, i didn't really spread the word.

9. If you are a part of an NES school or NEAT program, how did this affiliation affect your experience on the expedition?


10. What do you see Spaceward Bound evolving into in the next 5 years?  What would it look like?

I have no idea...seriously. So much depends on funding.

Spaceward Bound seems like a very low budget program, which is both good and bad. Good in that measuring it by the impact per dollar spent, probably makes it one of the most effective programs in NASA's budget. Bad, in that with such a small budget, the potential for a measurable impact is small. While 40 teachers seemed like a lot when were were down in the Mojave, out of the tens of thousands in the US, it's such a small number.

The evolution of the program should be driven by the needs of the scientists. In order for the research programs to remain relevant, and the teachers to bring back real experiences, the expedition needs to ldetermine the best locations, facilities and timeframes to support the scientific study, and only once a research skeleton is arranged, should the educational part of the program be fleshed out.