The rocketry is amazing. The kids really like to see these rockets taking off. But also in the development of [research picosatellite spacecraft] called CubeSats, where we’re building experiments to go up on some of these sounding rockets that we send up from Wallops [Flight Facility, located in Wallops Island, VA].
To let them see that “We have a problem. We want you to solve it.” Sometimes they come up with the most elegant solutions, even more so than the adults. I think it’s important to give them a challenge, and give them the autonomy to go out and solve those problems without being prescriptive and telling them what they have to do.
NTB: Are there any particular NASA programs that you emphasize?
Melvin: One of them that we’re working on this summer is called the Summer of Innovation. It came out of the president’s “Educate to Innovate” initiative in trying to curb the summer slide that students get when they leave school for the summer and don’t really do much besides have fun with sports or athletics or something over the summertime before the fall school year. We give them hands-on things that they can build and develop and learn over the summer that will help them get ready for the fall and then be better prepared for future testing and so forth.
NTB: You co-managed the former educator astronaut program, which recruited teachers to become trained astronauts. What did you learn or take from that experience?
Melvin: One of the educators that I know from Georgia, she went back and got a Masters degree in biology in one year to make herself more competitive to get selected for that program. It was a great program for allowing teachers to become full astronauts, where they were doing spacewalks, robotics, just like everyone else. One of the things that I’m really proud of is that that program resulted in choosing three educator astronauts, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Ricky Arnold, and Joe Acaba, all of whom have flown successfully on space shuttle missions, and they’ve all done robotics. Ricky and Joe did spacewalks, and now Joe is preparing for a long-duration space flight on the International Space Station. So it’s a testament to the work that teachers do and the abilities that they have to show that it’s something that everyone can do if trained properly and if you choose the right people. I’m really proud of their efforts. This program is ongoing. Teachers can still apply to become astronauts in future selections.
NTB: What is your favorite part of the job so far?
Melvin: Seeing a child’s mind change from thinking that they can’t be a scientist or engineer and thinking that it’s too hard, to then figuring out that five years later, they’re going to college to be a mechanical engineer or an aerospace engineer. There are many students that we’re actually reaching and touching that sometimes we don’t even know about that are a result of the education programs that we have and the inspiring people that work at NASA.
NTB: What has been a challenging part of the job?
Melvin: One of the biggest challenges for everyone right now throughout the agency is with the physical constraints that we have with the budget. We take what we have, and we make the best programs that we can, and we inspire the most people that we can. I think that’s pushed us to be more strategic with our partnerships, to make sure that we have the right partners, that we can leverage the money and personnel that we have to do the most good with teachers and students.
NTB: What is the ultimate goal from an education perspective?
Melvin: The ultimate goal is to allow all students to have a dream and to believe in themselves, that they can build and design and develop and be inspired. When I think about the next propulsion system that will be built to take us to Mars one day, it might be from a student that received NASA funding to go to graduate school, or undergraduate school, or maybe it was the Summer of Innovation program. One of NASA’s biggest roles is to have the inspiration piece there to ensure that these kids believe it and that they can do it.
NTB: What got you interested in science and engineering, and what kinds of educational techniques did you find valuable?
Melvin: When I grew up, my parents were both schoolteachers and didn’t have a whole lot of money, so I had to be very creative in making my toys and building things. I remember there was a chemistry set that my mother gave me when I was very young, and I mixed these two dissimilar chemicals together and made the most incredible explosion in her living room. It resulted in a spanking, but it fueled my curiosity to become a chemistry major and then a material science engineer. It’s the hands-on experiential moments that are the most beneficial. I was talking to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson the other day about when his kids took a wooden spoon to all the pots and pans in their drawers. That’s an acoustics experiment. They’re understanding the different timbres of the different pots and pans. Sometimes we don’t allow kids to explore and develop and create. What I’ve learned is that inquiry-based learning and the hands-on, experiential learning are the best things to help you understand what it takes to be a scientist and engineer, and it brings on the most creativity and inspiration.
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