This weekend I am in Pasadena at NASA’s JPL. I’m here for the #NASAsocial as they land the Mars rover Curiosity on Mars (or MSL – Mars Science Laboratory). Yesterday I spent the morning in a 2 hour press conference with different panels that discussed the science that will be taking place once the rover gets there and the EDL (entry, descent, landing) process. We spent the afternoon actually touring the facility and seeing everything from the mission control room to the Mars yard where they practice driving the rover over rocks, etc.
The engineering panel discussed the EDL. Their job is to land a robot hurling in space safely onto a planet they have never been before. Extremely complicated if you ask me. The Curiosity is much larger than the other landers and will be landing much different from the others as well. As the panel started, they spoke about their process for coming up with ways to land the MSL. And as they spoke about their job everything came back to the 4 same things. The more I listened the more I was convinced this is what schools should look like. These are the 4 elements education needs to revolve around.
The first element is brainstorming. They discussed how they brainstormed so many ways and scenarios to land MSL. It was not the first idea they had. So often we do not give kids time to brainstorm. We expect them to have a textbook type answer to everything. We don’t allow them time to come up with multiple answers then figure out which is best. Brainstorming takes time. Brainstorming needs to be taught, unfortunately. Well, maybe not taught, but they need to be guided on how to do this best.
The next element was collaboration. They discussed how rooms were covered in whiteboards and they would write ideas and ADD to others ideas on these boards. So often students are isolated in a desk with only their sheet of paper and do not get a chance to have others add to their thinking and vice versa. Wouldn’t it be great if our classrooms were covered in whiteboards. I think ideas all over the room would be so much more awesome than cheesy posters from the local parent-teacher store. Students also need to learn to work together and learn from each other. There is power in numbers.
This one is scary – you ready? Failure. Rob Manning, the chief engineer said “Failure inspires you.” How can you not agree with that? Think of something you are good at, if you stopped at first failure you would not have success doing whatever it is. You probably found a better way or learned from what you were doing wrong, right? But for some reason in schools once we fail, we fail. I am not talking about a “make up” test here. I am talking about teaching kids that failure is not the end. Guide them to understanding how to learn from the failure. Show them how to throw out what doesn’t work and keep what works. Have lessons that allow this thinking, you can’t learn from failure on tests or worksheets, you learn from failure when creating something and it not always working. Like I said, this is not about make up tests, but a thinking process.
The last element goes with failure. Thinking outside the box. After Rob Manning mentioned “Failure inspires you” he went on to say that failure allows us to think outside the box. Only 40% of Mars explorations have been successful. They did not stop after Mariner 3, thank goodness! So often education comes in a nice little box. That annoying little box is only filled with right and wrong answers. Sometimes it even has a textbook inside for the students to memorize from. Students need to have their own ideas. They need to create using these ideas and the last thing they need to worry about is whether those ideas fit in our little box. Ideas that maybe the most outrageous are at times perfect. I’m sure the first time someone said they should land Mars rovers with a parachute or an airbag it was outside that box. Now, not so much.
One last thought, Mars exploration probably will not stop until a human is on the planet. The engineering panel brought this to our attention, the people who will be making that trip are not adults of today, but children or today. Or even children who are not born yet. These children, our students, could build the space ship that gets someone there, or even better, the one going to Mars. If we are spending our time teaching them to memorize for tests instead of preparing for solving the problems and creating engineering masterpieces of the future, we are going to pay desperately. The more we push these elements in our schools, the quicker we will get someone to Mars.