Despite its vital interest in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills of American students, the U.S. space agency is not reaching its potential as a resource for bolstering performance in those so-called STEM fields in K-12 schools, a new congressionally mandated report concludes.
The report by the National Research Council says the National Aeronautics and Space Administration lacks a coherent overall plan—or adequate budget—for evaluating its elementary and secondary projects, which are woven throughout a wide range of scientific and exploration programs.
A committee of scientists and educators commissioned by the NRC, a research branch of the federal National Academy of Sciences, spent a year examining NASA’s efforts in elementary and secondary education, a task panel members said was hampered by “instability in the program and lack of rigorous evaluation” at the agency.
The weakness in evaluation is a major finding of the report. “When used right, evaluation is a process of continuous improvement; it makes the programs continually get better,” the chairwoman of the committee, Helen R. Quinn, a physicist at Stanford University, said in an interview. “What we saw are programs that have not been updated and modified and revised in the ways they might have been.”
That shortcoming also made it hard for the committee to gauge the effectiveness of NASA’s various education undertakings.
“Because there wasn’t sufficient formal evaluation, we had to make judgments on the programs based on our own expert knowledge of what best practices in these areas are,” Ms. Quinn said.
The committee concluded that “various parts of the [education] program don’t seem to reflect what is known about what works in these sorts of things,” she said. “Questions were also raised about cost effectiveness.”
Effectiveness at Issue
The report, made available to the news media Dec. 11, says “the education projects have experienced rapidly shifting priorities, fluctuations in budget, and changes in management structure that have undermined the stability of programs and made evaluation of effectiveness challenging.”
Overall, the education projects are “somewhat effective at raising awareness of the science and engineering of NASA’s missions and generating students’ and teachers’ interest in STEM subjects,” the study says. “As currently configured, however, the projects cannot be shown to be effective at enhancing learning of STEM content or providing in-depth experience with the science and engineering of the mission.”
The committee credits NASA with demonstrating strong commitment to financing STEM education activities, but says those funds were dispersed across many divisions.
The report also finds that while NASA does take part in federally coordinated activities, it does not systematically coordinate with other federal agencies involved in STEM education or draw on their expertise in designing educational projects.
Congress ordered the study in the 2005 law reauthorizing the space agency. The 15-member study committee reviewed documents, heard testimony by NASA officials, and commissioned several research papers.
Of the seven projects that are managed by the agency’s office of education, the committee gave specific recommendations for three of them: the aerospace education service program; the science, engineering, mathematics, and aerospace academy; and NASA’s Explorer Schools.
The other four projects have begun too recently or lacked sufficient documentation of project performance, the report says. Those are the agency’s Digital Learning Network; its Education Flight Projects; the Educator Astronaut Program; and the Interdisciplinary National Science Program Incorporating Research and Education.
The report noted that, although the space agency does not have the lead federal role in STEM education, “as a discoverer of new science and a creator of new technology, NASA like other federal science agencies has an important complementary role in STEM education.” That role is “closely linked to and guided by the core scientific, engineering, and exploration missions of the agency,” the report says.
Report Under Review
Sonja Alexander, a spokeswoman at NASA’s Washington headquarters, said the agency could not yet comment on the report, because senior managers had just received it and were reviewing it.
Howard E. McCurdy, an authority on NASA who is a professor at American University in Washington, had not seen the report and was traveling. He said in an e-mail, however, that NASA had encouraged science and engineering education for decades, but that “given current budget constraints … the agency has other things to do.”
“Although employees are committed to science and technology education, it is viewed as something of a distraction from the fiscal and technical crises pressing against them,” Mr. McCurdy said.
NASA’s best-publicized recent educational venture—last summer’s space-shuttle mission by former teacher Barbara R. Morgan, who led downlinked sessions with students while in space—occurred too late for the report to discuss in detail, said Ms. Quinn, the chairwoman of the NRC committee.
But “the issue of cost-effectiveness certainly comes into play when you ask about educators in space. How much is education and how much is basically … the NASA brand,” Ms. Quinn said, adding that she was expressing her personal opinion.
“It’s clear, for education there’s value in the concept of NASA and the excitement of NASA, but there’s a line that’s difficult to draw, about when you stop using education to educate, and when you are using education to sell NASA,” she said.