In 1969, our natural inclination to explore literally took us out of this world.
Those who remember watching on television as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon tell us about how that moment made everyone feel that the unthinkable was suddenly possible; and yet, at the same time, we were humbled.
Even hearing about it secondhand was a moving experience for me. It was a rare moment, both personal and global—and all made possible by an utter paradox: the audacity to dream coupled with the precision of technology.
Of course, this achievement was not the product of chance, nor was any single person solely responsible. That is the telling fact about great achievements of science and engineering: They need many visionaries, thinkers, and doers to bring ideas to fruition.
Just as importantly, these scientists and engineers need time—weeks, years, sometimes decades of study and failure—to triumph.
That same persistence and teamwork are needed today to achieve advances in science, technology, engineering, and math that will ultimately save lives and provide the basis for bringing communities out of poverty all around the world.
Developing these skills begins at the earliest levels of education. Students in grades Pre-K-12, particularly in the formative Pre-K-3 grades, need exposure to the latest advancements in STEM, and they need the time and space to explore, to understand and develop the skills of collaboration and persistence.
Young students need teachers who are well versed in pedagogy with deep knowledge of their chosen field and who translate learning to real-world applications beyond the classroom walls.
However, it has been nearly 20 years since the U.S. has addressed the way science is taught in classrooms. Our children all know about the moon landing, but they’re using textbooks that predate our entire Mars program.
Keeping in mind the importance of collaboration and big aspirations in STEM education, thousands of people across 26 states developed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Teams that included scientists and engineers, educators and parents, business leaders, and even students worked together to develop new science education benchmarks that K-12 students should master in order to prepare for future success.
A strong and consistent STEM education for every student ensures that we continue to make great strides in scientific achievement.
And while it’s important to reach for the stars, there are so many global issues that can ignite the imagination and problem-solving spirit of students around the world.
Much in the same way that we inspired children to imagine man—or woman!—walking on the moon, we need to inspire them to create a world in which no one human being goes without clean water, food, electricity, or medicine. Tackling each one of these challenges requires creativity, global citizenship, and engineering and technology innovation.
When I’m asked to speak to middle- and high-schoolers, I tell them about the Stanford University students who developed an ultra-affordable incubator to combat infant mortality in rural villages in India. I tell them about the boy in Malawi who built a windmill out of scrap parts to bring electricity to his village. Those two stories alone have boys and girls jumping out of their seats, each inspired to a career in engineering to improve the quality of life for all.
It’s also why I’m thrilled the Maker Movement is gaining momentum among young people. The notion of creating is at the heart of engineering, and we’re reigniting it.
With outdated educational standards and textbooks and a scarcity of properly prepared math and science teachers, our students are missing out on the foundation of science and engineering: curiosity about how the world works and an appreciation of how determination and excitement can help solve real-world challenges.
If we renew our investment in science and engineering education and the way we teach, the possibilities in engineering, technology, water, energy and yes, space exploration, will be endless.
—Noha El-Ghobashy is the president of Engineering for Change and the managing director of Engineering Workforce and Global Development at The American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
[Image: Flickr user USACE Europe District]