General Science


Mission: Engaging Science

Even though it was 1:30 in the morning, about 1,000 people gathered in Times Square, August 6th , to stare up at a 53-foot LED screen. Having lived in New York City for many years, I know there are always lots of people in Times Square. And getting them to stop and watch—or even to notice anything—would be a big deal. But here they were, adults and children, their mouths agape and eyes fixed in suspense, looking up at that giant screen. What was it that so captivated them and many others around the globe? Some wild publicity stunt? The trailer for a new blockbuster movie? No. They had gathered to peer into NASA’s Mission Control Center as the rover Curiosity landed on Mars. Reminiscent of the Apollo 11 moon landing, watched by 500 million people worldwide some 43 years ago, these people were here to witness human exploration in real time. Many of these enthralled viewers were kids, given a late-night reprieve to watch history being made on a neighboring body in our solar system. While the grainy black-and-white TV sets may have been replaced by high-definition LED screens, iPads, or even smartphones, the looks on peoples’ faces and their excitement as the car-sized robotic explorer touched down on Mars have not changed over the decades. The scene made me think: How will the story of the Curiosity rover influence this audience and all the others watching worldwide?

I have talked with many NASA scientists and engineers over the past decade, and I have learned that watching events—like the Curiosity landing—played a critical role in inspiring them to pursue their career path. They were engaged by these powerful stories and found ways to get involved and contribute.

Children examining a model of MER at JPL. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tony Greicius

It’s clear that events like these play an important role in inspiring our youth, which makes it all the more crucial that the story of the event is told well. During the Apollo missions, people observed the Moon through telescopes. Now, we have new technologies that let us learn more about these important events, and also allow us to tell an even more compelling story. Besides the availability of online telescopes controlled via the Internet, the Curiosity rover has its own Twitter account and an interactive 3D rover simulation that allows you to track it online. We can “see” Curiosity land through a computer simulation that looks, for all intents, like a video game of Mars. This is no game, though. Data is being accumulated at record pace. The exciting part is that we can access data like never before, it’s real, and there is a lot of it!

So what do these new methods of storytelling and changing technologies have to do with teaching? Everything. Each lesson unfolds as a story—you determine your message (the concept you wish to teach). Each inquiry or lab is a mission to find a solution or test a hypothesis. And we know from educational research that our students learn socially and would prefer to work in teams, just like those large teams that we see in every NASA Mission Control scene.

Of course, we can’t land a rover in our classrooms every day, but we can tell great stories, give our students a sense of mission, and the pathways to extend their engagement and support their interests. The developments in scientific fields are having an impact on how we can and should be teaching STEM subjects. A quick look at the newly released framework for the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards (to be released in 2013) is a good place to get a sense of what these changes can be.

NOVA Education is also working to innovate our own STEM Resources so that educators can better support these new modes of teaching. Our print resources have shifted to media and digital formats, searchable by topic and aligned with standards on the NOVA Education website. Social media allows us to grow our community and connect directly with you through our Facebook page and Twitter feeds.

The tools might change from decade to decade, yet the core story remains one of science and exploration. This is what NOVA is all about. Next year, we turn 40. Maybe NOVA inspired you along the way, as it did me. I watched it as a child, taught with it for many years in my classroom, and now work with a great team on the mission to become NOVA’s new Education Department. We hope you will join and participate in our community and along the way, find resources and PD that help you in every mission you face in your classroom.

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Rachel Connolly

As NOVA’s Director of Education, Rachel considers it her mission in life to find new ways to make complex concepts accessible. Before NOVA, Rachel has served as the director of the planetarium at the University of Louisville, as the Astrophysics Education Manager at the American Museum of Natural History, and as a high school physics teacher in New York City. She is currently working to complete her PhD in Science Education at Columbia University.