Astronauts existed in science fiction before they became reality. Early on, U.S. astronauts were both explorers and celebrities, welcomed to earth with ticker-tape parades, their names known by every American.
For five decades, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” had a common answer – astronaut. Cindy Raynor, coordinator of River Dell Elementary School’s STEM program, said that’s not an answer she hears much anymore. Students today, she said, find most job titles off putting or hard to get excited about.
“They don’t really know what an engineer even does,” Raynor said. “One time we showed the kids words like chemist, biologist and engineer, and no one wanted to do those jobs. But then we showed them pictures of scientists in lab coats and engineers building things. Then they could see that the cool jobs were STEM related.”
STEM is short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and its most famous employer visited River Dell last week. Marile Colon Robles, Kimberly Brush and Rosemary Smith of NASA spent the day talking to students about what it’s like to live and work in space, hitting the high points of going to the bathroom, sleeping and eating in zero gravity. The students found common ground with the astronauts in dealing with the scourge of bedtimes.
Robles is an education specialist for NASA, which she said mostly means teaching teachers how to talk about STEM programs. She also hopes to make rocket science more approachable for students.
“The main purpose is to inspire,” Robles said. “I try to show the students that people at NASA have a variety of backgrounds, degrees and ethnicities. You have to bring together a diverse group of people and experiences because that’s how you generate the biggest ideas.”
Part of attracting diversity, Robles said, is making NASA and other technology paths more relatable. On Thursday, she drew a line between astronauts working in space and racecar driver Jimmie Johnson.
“The same engineer who built the astronaut’s gloves built the ones worn in the racecar,” she said. “We want them to see the importance of these fields and teach them that this is attainable for them if it’s something they’re interested in.”
Robles said NASA also stresses “STEAM,” which adds the arts to the curriculum. Without the arts, she said. perhaps the breakthrough of the century never gets communicated to the people or its significance fully interpreted.
“There can be no divide between them,” Robles said of the arts and sciences. “If I’m a researcher, someone needs to be able to tell the story of what I’m doing. It could a very significant idea, but if I don’t have someone who knows how to tell the story, it doesn’t get told.”
This is the first year for a STEM program at River Dell and for Johnston County schools. Raynor said the difference from what used to be known simply as math and biology is making science education more interactive. Before NASA, the school has hosted water-purification scientists and engineers from Duke Energy Progress.
“Everything is 100 percent hands on,” Raynor said. “We perform experiments and use the five principles of engineering: design, plan, imagine, construct and improve. We teach early on that failure is OK.”
Raynor pointed to the United States’ underwhelming status in the world of science and math as the reason she wanted to start a program at River Dell. Last year, the Pew Research Center ranked the United States in the middle of the world’s top 48 countries in science and math education.
“We saw the need,” Raynor said. “We saw that our students are not competing globally and that we were not doing what we needed to do.”
Whether the national trend of STEM education propels a boom in breakthroughs or not, Ben Williams said the River Dell program is ultimately designed to nurture that interest before it dies.
“The future for all kinds of careers is starting right here,” Williams said. “In this gym we have future doctors, attorneys, master mechanics. Our goal is to spark an interest. We’re always trying to inspire them, trying to teach them that all of this is attainable.”
A quick poll of students revealed the diversity NASA is perhaps seeking. One student said he still wasn’t sure what his future held, but one girl was certain she wanted to be a dog trainer. And Isiah Alfred wants to be a doctor treating childhood cancers. And if not that, a scientist.
“I’d like to find a cure for cancer,” Alfred said. “It’s sad that people die from it.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson