The NES program is a free option available to encourage Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education in the United States. STEM education is an important issue for the future because modern college enrollment in these majors is worryingly low, making people wonder where the next generation of scientists and engineers will come from. Some theories blame a lack of early exposure to the basic tenets of science, which is one reason that many initiatives to support primary and secondary STEM education are being put into place.
NASA is doing their part to encourage STEM education through the NES program. Teachers of grades 4-12 can register online to gain access to lesson plans, NASA Now classroom videos and other STEM educators. Participating in the NES program also makes the schools eligible to receive recognition awards, which serves as an incentive for teachers to join and make a real effort.
The 2012 Recognition Award involves not only public acknowledgement of the efforts of these schools in STEM education, but also a chance for three teachers from each school to perform experiments in NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft. Launching from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the aircraft will be the site of student-designed experiments carried out by their teachers in a near-zero gravity environment.
The flight will take place in April 2013, and will involve experiments including acceleration and inertia, the behavior of liquids in microgravity, and mass versus weight in a low gravity environment. The fact that the experiments are designed by students and carried out by their teachers helps to excite both educators and students alike about STEM topics.
NASA reviewed applications from many of their 470 participating schools before selecting the ones to reward in 2012. The schools that have received recognition have implemented broad measures to increase STEM education and also use NES educational materials in innovative ways. The schools chosen for 2012 include three elementary schools, one K-8, one middle school and one high school. They include five public schools and one private school among them.
The experiments done by the honored teachers have a potentially life-changing effect on the students who get to design them and see their teachers carry them out. Not only do they serve to excite the entire STEM community about educational possibilities for the future, they also serve to teach students about possible opportunities in STEM careers. The environment on the microgravity aircraft is similar to that on the International Space Station, says Cecelia Fletcher, acting program manager for primary and secondary education at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the experiments performed on the aircraft represent simplistic versions of experiments being done by professional scientists spinning around the earth in space. Kids can get a taste of experiencing STEM research as these professionals do and look up to them as role models in the field.
Registration in the NES program is easy for anyone who teaches grades 4-12 at a U.S., U.S. territory, Department of Defense or Department of State school. Online registration is followed by confirmation of a position as a teacher, homeschool educator or classroom support staff. Recognition awards, however, are limited to teachers with valid education credentials and schools that are accredited in the U.S., a U.S. territory or by the DOD or Department of State.
The NES school program is not the only educational opportunity that NASA sponsors. There are multiple opportunities for educators and children to access lectures, chat sessions and contests relating to a number of STEM topics. Children in the lower grades can participate in NASA's quest to establish a rock collection from all over the world to compare to those found on Mars, while college and graduate students can compete in the quest to launch microsatellites into space.
The immediate contribution of the classroom-designed experiments that will be performed in April 2013 is probably negligible. However, the overall contribution of these experiments is potentially huge. Educators get excited about the prospect of winning a chance to go up the aircraft, and they share this excitement with their students. Students learn to value STEM topics, and some of them will become the next generation of scientists and engineers. The rest will have gained an understanding of how STEM research and education is important in our modern world, and can go on to share that knowledge with others.