The Institute’s Educational Programs

Hussein Jirdeh,, Bonnie Eisenhamer,, and Denise Smith,

OPOFigs-1Two decades ago, the leaders of the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA posed a question to themselves: could a small group of scientists and educators transform the breathtaking discoveries from the Hubble Space Telescope into meaningful and measurable educational products for America’s schools, potentially reaching millions of youths at a time?  In asking this question, we recognized that Hubble’s discoveries offer unprecedented opportunities to inspire, engage, and educate students of all ages and backgrounds in the fundamental concepts of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We embraced the potential as we saw it, and committed the Institute to making it a reality. Since then, the scope of our efforts has grown to include the wealth of compelling narratives associated with the James Webb Space Telescope. Over the years, we have learned much about the practical links between basic education and advanced scientific research, and we have made substantial contributions to national STEM goals. Today, more than half the state departments of education in the U.S. have integrated the Institute’s educational materials into their programs.  What makes this program such a success is that educator-scientist partnerships are central to producing all education material—from design to implementation.

STEM education as a national priority

The year 2013 presented both a challenge and an opportunity for the Institute to examine the role of its educational programs in supporting a national STEM agenda. The President’s fiscal year 2014 budget request proposed a reorganization of all federally funded STEM education programs in order to improve the delivery, impact, and visibility of their efforts. In addition, the reorganization sought to align the programs with national goals that primarily focus on STEM workforce development and STEM literacy. We, at the Institute, contribute to these goals and provide a range of opportunities that allow unique NASA science and products to play a significant role in these national priorities.

OPOFigs-2Institute programs

Federal agencies, which depend upon the cultivation of a talented and well-trained twenty-first century workforce, play a critical role in preparing the next generation of STEM workers. NASA, with the support of partners like the Institute, is well positioned for engaging young people and motivating them toward STEM careers. By providing expertise and content, serving as role models, and exposing students to real-world learning opportunities, our scientists and engineers help to inspire and educate future generations of innovators and explorers.

This broader discussion of federal priorities provides an opportunity to reflect upon the impact of STEM educational programs undertaken by national science projects like Hubble and Webb, both in terms of what has been accomplished and what it represents in the larger picture.

At its heart, a space telescope is a wellspring of new ideas and information—new knowledge, including scientific discoveries, technological advances, engineering solutions, and mathematical frameworks. A space telescope project has “STEM” written all over it. Nevertheless, the beneficial connections between forefront research and basic teaching and learning are not completely obvious and therefore must be thoughtfully developed.

Because of the Institute’s science charter, our education and public outreach efforts naturally focus on the “S,” for science. Under the heading “news,” we collaborate with research scientists to produce press releases and science briefings that disseminate new knowledge worldwide through media channels. Under both “outreach” and “informal education,” we develop resources—notably HubbleSite and the ViewSpace multimedia exhibit, which reach 2.2 million users per month and nearly nine million viewers per year, respectively. Finally, our formal educational programs—training teachers and developing and distributing education resources—are the direct contributions from Hubble and Webb to the totality of federal investments in formal STEM education.

The keywords for the Institute’s formal educational program are “partnerships,” “middle school,” “master teachers,” “rigorous evaluation,” and “leveraged distribution.”

OPOFigs-3At the Institute, the creative process of curriculum support material development involves a purposeful partnership of scientists, engineers, and educators. We bring together active practitioners from each field to ensure that the scientific and technical content of our products is current and accurate, and that products meet pedagogical standards. This commitment to partnering scientists and educators to communicate cutting-edge mission science effectively with educators, students, and the public has become so deeply engrained in the HubbleWebb culture, that many feel it epitomizes NASA’s social contract with the nation.

Our partnerships with educators and the education industry allow us to reach new audiences and to integrate new techniques into our programs without duplicating effort. We enter into such partnerships selectively, according to criteria, such as sustainability, service to underserved/underrepresented populations, and the willingness to collect and share follow-up data based on summative evaluations—estimates of actual learning after a unit is taught.

The Institute’s focus in formal education is on middle schools, where many students lose interest in science, technology, and math. Because of that, the middle-school years are a critical turning point in the STEM pipeline. Our approach builds on the natural appeal that astronomy has always held for children. To retain the interest of middle-school students, we create interactive educational materials using real data, keeping pupils engaged and providing them an opportunity to visualize themselves as real scientists.

The Institute’s path to success

The Institute organizes and implements professional development workshops for master teachers, where we teach them how to use our educational materials. They bring this knowledge back to their schools. After training, each master teacher in our program agrees to teach at least two classes of middle-school science teachers. In this way, the ~1,100 master teachers who participated in our professional development workshops last year are expected to teach more than ~55,000 teachers, thereby reaching ~1.7 million students.

OPOFigs-4We conduct or commission evaluations of our educational products and programs, to ensure they achieve their intended outcomes. To learn how, where, and why our materials are being utilized, we collect data from a sample of more than 1,400 venues, including colleges, school districts, and informal science education centers. The most important indicator of the positive impact of the Institute’s educational products is their widespread use and adoption by the formal educational community. Institute materials are now used in all 50 states, and to more than half of the state departments of education, Institute materials are a required or recommended element.

To achieve national distribution with limited resources, it is necessary to use leverage in distributing our products. Our partnerships with educators and the education industry provide such leverage. So do our websites, particularly Amazing Space.

Because all work at the Institute involves computers and the internet, we were early adopters of information technologies to distribute our educational products. Our online Amazing Space education curriculum support materials provide educators and students with interactive, inquiry-based learning and allow students to self-test—strategies known to enhance student learning. Nearly half of our access to students comes through Amazing Space. The other half comes from the extensive distribution of hardcopy materials by partners. In total, we reach more than six million students each year.

The Institute has a successful track record transforming Hubble discoveries and Webb developments into effective educational products, which reach millions of students nationwide. By targeting those students most vulnerable to missing out on STEM careers—middle school students—we are taking a concrete step toward advancing the President’s goal of one million new STEM graduates within a decade.

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