As NASA’s associate administrator for education, Leland Melvin is responsible for the development and implementation of the agency's education programs that strengthen student involvement and public awareness about NASA's scientific goals and missions.
NASA Tech Briefs: I’ve heard current NASA education efforts described as an overhaul. What has changed, what will change, and what is needed to improve NASA’s educational offerings?
Leland D. Melvin: I don’t know if we’d say it’s an overhaul. I think it’s more of a tighter focus. We’re being physically constrained, we don’t know the President’s budget, and we’re really trying to determine what NASA is supposed to be doing in education. What is NASA’s role? We have limited dollars, so we want to make the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck. Historically, we’ve tried to cover everything from to K to gray with education. Maybe NASA’s role is to do a piece of inspiration, maybe to work on looking at middle school teachers and how to get them better prepared to inspire more kids. This process isn’t really an overhaul, but it’s more of a refocusing. There’s a workforce, a National Science and Technology Council committee on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education, which is looking at the entire federal agency STEM portfolio and strategic plan for the next five years. This came out of the President’s America COMPETES [Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology] Act, and we have a report due to him in January.
NTB: What kinds of subjects and topics are emphasized in these efforts?
Melvin: All of our efforts are involved with STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We want to make sure that teachers and students especially have the right tools to ensure that they can see themselves as being able to do anything that they put their minds to in STEM fields. We do hands-on, experiential efforts, including the Summer of Innovation where [students] build rockets, windmills, and wind tunnels, using their hands to build and solve problems. One of the things we’d like to do is keep the kids thinking about ways that they can apply themselves over the summer months.
For teachers, it’s to ensure that they have the right tools to better present difficult concepts, like astronomy or trying to describe the solar system to students. If we can better prepare them and maybe have electronic media that they can use to augment their lesson plans, that’s something that we can do with professional development for teachers.
Also, we have internships, fellowships, and scholarships, a one-stop shopping program that allows for students to log into one website to find out all the opportunities that we have across the agency at all the field centers.
NTB: Where do you think the gaps are? Are there particular subjects or topics that you think students or teachers don’t have as great of an understanding of?
Melvin: Some of the middle school teachers aren’t certified science teachers, and we can better help those teachers understand the tougher concepts. We have some information on our site that shows how math is associated with the current missions that we’re doing now. We can give concrete examples to keep the mathematics principles from being so abstract, to let them see that these are the kind of prompts that we’re using the math to work on.
NTB: How can NASA get kids more interested in science and engineering?
Melvin: The missions and the people that we have are the resources that really get kids inspired and excited. I’ve had an opportunity to talk to thousands of kids in my career at NASA. During the last shuttle launch that went up, I looked at some of the kids’ faces; they were just transfixed. It’s something that’s awe-inspiring. It’s hard to believe, as a civilization, we’ve built a vehicle that can launch from a launch pad, fly to the space station, land like a glider, and come back home. We use those assets, including some of the motivating and inspiring personalities and subject matter experts that we have, to help kids understand that these concepts are achievable if you stay focused, if you are disciplined, and if you work hard.