Students Have Questions, Astronauts Have Answers

Students talk with astronauts aboard the international space station

(Official Department of Education Photo by Paul Wood)

“Station, this is Houston. Are you ready?” The radio crackled. “Houston, we are ready. Over.”

As teachers, we are always looking for new ways to inspire our students to make authentic connections between what we teach them in the classroom and what happens in real life.

Last week, dozens of animated middle school students of military families gathered at Department of Education headquarters to talk with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Students watched in amazement as peers chatted with a floating Commander Mike Fossum via a giant screen in ED’s auditorium. The event was made possible by NASA’s Teaching From Space program.

The International Space Station is the product of work by 16 countries spread over four continents, including the U.S., Canada, Japan, Russia, Brazil, and 11 countries from the European Space Agency. As such, the event was a unique way to initiate International Education Week, which begins today.  

But it’s the other numbers that catch students’ attention the most: At almost 1 million pounds, the International Space Station circles the Earth every 90 minutes and has made 57,361 trips around the Earth.

The facts are astounding and the novelty, thrilling. This was one time when school didn’t feel like school and students were witnessing the synergy between lessons in the classroom and real world experience.

“Do laptops and devices with hard drives work the same in space or are they more likely to crash?” asked an 8th grader. “Do you have to speak other languages on the International Space Station to understand each other?” asked a 10th grader. Students were bursting with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related questions that called up a global perspective.

We know that STEM subjects are critical to the study of space, but here students learned that if astronauts can’t share ideas internationally and communicate in different languages, then the work simply doesn’t get done.

The need to simultaneously heighten our students’ exposure to science and technology and develop their global competencies hit home. There is no question that young people want to make it happen. My only question is, when will we catch up with them?

International Education Week is a joint initiative between the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of State. To learn more about the live In-Flight Education Downlinks and watch the event, click here.

Claire Jellinek is a high school social studies teacher at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, NM and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

Arne on Teacher Evaluation Metrics and Celebrating Success in STEM

Arne recently sat down to answer a couple of questions posted to his Facebook page. In response to Lori’s question about teacher evaluation metrics, Arne said that we have to look at multiple measures in order to see how much students are improving, and how much they are growing each year. Other measures include peer assistance, principal evaluation, portfolios, what teachers are doing in terms of their own professional development, and what leadership teachers provide to their school and community.

“Whether it is a teacher, a principal, anyone in education, anyone in any other field, you have to look at multiples measures, student’s growth and achievement being a part of that, and a significant part, but just one piece of that overall equation,” Duncan said.

Nils commented on the need to celebrate the success in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) areas just as we celebrate great athletes. Arne agreed and said that a good starting point is to recruit about 100,000 additional STEM teachers over the next decade so that not only high school students, but 4th, and 5th, and 6th graders have a chance to be taught by teachers who are passionate about and love the STEM fields.

Watch the video:


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Join the conversation in the comments below and feel free to ask Arne a question by checking out his Facebook page.

Back-to-School Stop Puts Spotlight on STEM Initiatives Preparing Students for College and Careers

On Friday, ED’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education Eduardo M. Ochoa, held a lively discussion hosted by Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) regarding innovative STEM initiatives designed to prepare students to succeed in college and make an easier transition into the workforce.  Ochoa’s visit was part of the Department of Education’s back-to-school tour that included over 50 events throughout the Midwest.

Representatives from NEIU spoke of the success of their GEAR UP partnership grant, which helped ignite student interest in a broad range of medical careers through a partnership with Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital. The Children’s Memorial Hospital provides opportunities for middle and high school students, from low income backgrounds, to shadow health care providers and participate in internships and summer programs relating to a broad range of medical careers.  The grant also engages students in hands-on STEM activities such as robotics and game design.

Ninth grade students who participate in these types of programs typically see a significant improvement of grades and standardized test scores.  Additionally, it was noted that 89% of seniors who participated in GEAR UP programs completed and submitted Federal Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) applications, demonstrating their motivation to finish high school and continue onto college.

Students highlighted how their participation in GEAR UP activities sparked interest in science, inspiring them to major in science fields in college.  Other forum participants, representing businesses, a museum, grant programs and other universities, passionately described their engagement and support around STEM education.

The forum sparked a great deal of cross fertilization, which we hope will provide additional opportunities for future collaboration and continued success.

Lynn Mahaffie
Office of Postsecondary Education

Participate in a Robotics Competition—in Space!

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

What could possibly make an already super cool robotics competition even better? The zero-gravity environment of space!

NASA and DARPA, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyTopCoder, and Aurora Flight Sciences, recently announced the Zero Robotics competition, an event open to all high schools in the United States that form a team and complete the application process.

Zero Robotics is a student software competition that takes the idea of a robotics competition to new heights—literally.  The robots are basketball-sized satellites called SPHERES, and they look like something straight out of Star Wars.  The competition is kicked off by a challenging problem conjured up by DARPA and NASA.  After multiple rounds of simulation and ground competition, a final tournament will be held onboard the International Space Station!  The 27 finalists will have their robotic programs run by an astronaut in the microgravity environment of space.

The goal is to build critical engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training, and team work. Teams participate by programming a SPHERES satellite using a simplified programming environment to achieve the game objectives while competing or collaborating with other contestants.  The tournament stages during the fall season give the teams an opportunity to develop and improve their programs and test them with and against the other teams.

This competition embodies three initiatives that are priorities of the Obama Administration:

  • President Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which was launched with the goal of improving the participation and performance of America’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM);
  • Using challenges to increase participation or achieve progress in a certain area of need;
  • And the President’s recently announced National Robotics Initiative, focused on strengthening the robotics capabilities of our Nation.

All three of these initiatives involve the Federal government, educational institutions, and private corporations working together on America’s science and engineering challenges.

If you are interested in participating in Zero Robotics this fall but haven’t already sent in an application, the deadline for teams to apply is September 5.  The application is available online at http://zerorobotics.mit.edu.

So if you think that robotics is cool, and space is cool, then get involved in the 2011 Zero Robotics Challenge. You, your child, or your student could control a satellite in space!

Chuck Thorpe is Assistant Director for Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

English Learners Key to a Multi-lingual STEM Workforce

Future U.S. competitiveness will depend on how well we prepare our students and provide them the proper skills to be college and career-ready, especially when it comes to careers in the STEM fields.  In the K-12 education setting, this means providing ALL students, including English Learners (ELs), access to a high-quality STEM education.  Unfortunately, recent data indicate that ELs often do not have the same access to quality STEM instruction as their non-EL peers.  To highlight effective practices and resources for promoting EL achievement in the STEM subjects, ED’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) recently hosted a one-day forum entitled, “High-Quality STEM Education for English Learners”.

Held in Washington, DC on July 11, the forum was attended by more than 65 participants who listened to presentations from individuals representing research, practice, professional organizations, and business in the STEM fields.  Notable speakers included Congressman Rúben Hinojosa (D-TX) and Michelle Shearer, the 2011 National Teacher of the Year.

One big take-away from this forum is that perceptions about English Learners need to change.  Rather than seeing English Learners in terms of their academic underachievement, we need to see them as an untapped resource for developing a multi-lingual STEM workforce that has the potential to keep the U.S. competitive in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Congressman Rúben Hinojosa opened the meeting by sharing a motivating and inspiring personal story about his own experience as an English Learner growing up in 1940’s south Texas. Hinojosa highlighted his work to support greater educational opportunities for residents of south Texas and his efforts to support and strengthen minority-serving institutions (MSIs), especially in south Texas, in hopes of creating an education pipeline for students living in the mostly agrarian region.

During the forum I shared several key findings from the recently released Civil Rights Data Collection biennial survey.  The survey’s Part I findings show that English Learners are still being denied access to the kinds of classes, resources, and educational opportunities necessary to be successful in college and career.  Among other things, the data shows that English Learners have lower rates of enrollment in Algebra I, which is a critical gateway course for other advanced math and science courses that act as hurdles that slow or halt a student’s progress towards a college degree.  The data also show that English Learners tend to enroll in advanced placement math and science courses at lower rates than their non-EL peers.

During her remarks at the forum, National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer, who teaches chemistry in Frederick, Maryland, shared some effective teaching practices she has used with deaf students that teachers can use with EL students such as using examples when teaching a new concept, using visuals, making lessons relevant to students’ lives, and validating students’ use of their native language. She spoke enthusiastically about her teaching experiences and emphasized that besides the basic 3Rs, students will need the 4Cs: critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills.

Besides teacher education and effective practices, other presentations focused on data collection, data analysis methods and research; parent, family and community engagement; and the potential impact public/private partnerships can have for reforming and transforming STEM education for ELs.  Those interested may view the presentations online at http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/meetings/stemforum/.

Rosalinda B. Barrera, Ph.D. is assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education.

Cultivating the Seeds of Knowledge; Growing a Greener Future for our Nation

EPA Administrator Jackson, CEQ Chair Sutley and Secretary of Education Duncan plant a Texas Live Oak Tree outside of the U.S. Department of Education (Photo by: Eric Vance, US EPA)

Cross-posted from the CEQ Blog

As the bitter chill of winter retreats, the vibrancy of spring beckons us outdoors reminding us of the inextricable link between the natural world and our daily lives.  In striving to meet the President’s challenge to win the future by out-educating the rest of the world, we must cultivate the environmental health of our learning spaces and our students’ understanding of their environment to enable them to meet the challenges of the future.

Today, the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality came together to launch the Green Ribbon Schools Program.  This program  plants the seeds to move toward educational excellence for the future by recognizing schools that are creating healthy and sustainable learning environments -both inside and outside the classroom, teaching environmental literacy, and increasing environmental health by reducing their environmental footprint.

Led by the Department of Education, in close partnership with the EPA and CEQ, the Green Ribbon Schools program will incentivize and reward schools that help to ensure that our students receive an education second to none by improving the health and environmental footprint of nation’s schools.  To prepare our children for the clean energy economy of the future, Green Ribbon schools will be those that incorporate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and environmental stewardship into their curricula.

Education Secretary Duncan, EPA Administrator Jackson and CEQ Chair Sutley announce the Green Ribbon Schools program with local students. (Photo by: Eric Vance, US EPA)

This initiative will also help to reconnect our nation’s youth to the environment around them, as part of President Obama’s Americas Great Outdoors initiative, by encouraging outdoor learning. In a day when children spend half as much time outside as their parents did, there’s no time like the present to leverage the Federal government’s leadership to fuel our children’s spirit of adventure and reconnect them with the outdoors. After all, outdoor access and environmental education will better prepare our students to find innovative solutions to tomorrow’s challenges and compete for the jobs of the future.

We want the best for our students, and we all share the responsibility to equip them with tools to accomplish their greatest potential. The Green Ribbon Schools Program is one example of how the Federal Government will work to instill educational and environmental excellence in communities across America.  Later this year, the application for the program will be released, and the first group of “Green Ribbon Schools” will be announced next year. By helping to cultivate the seeds of environmental and educational excellence in our nation’s schools, we can grow an even brighter future our nation.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of the Department of Education
Lisa P. Jackson is Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency
Nancy Sutley is Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality