Tuesday, January 17, 2006


The Bad Astronomer reported a verbatim quote from the AAS "We (NASA) are not the Department of Education" say NASA Admin Griffin.

Indeed. Lets check, yes, Slacker Astronomy confirms

Well, it is not.
Nor is NASA the National Aeronautics Administration, evidently.
And we know it is Not A Science Agency.

So, we have a National Space Administration, which I guess explains their fondness for paperwork and signal processing... (and, NASA, I love ya and all, but when it says "Penn State" it should be a clue to not send the letter to Utah! Oh, and thanks, Utah U. for forwarding it to me, unopened, it was kinda important, although to be fair Someone At NASA Had Realised and e-mailed the info in the meantime...).

Anyway, we are also learning that the NSF is not a Department of Education, which I guess leaves the Department of Education as the Department of Education (hah!).

So, what, is that not proper?

Well, I am assuming that NASA is referring to the "E" in their EPO - since for NASA of all agencies to cut Public Outreach would be the most staggering DC incident of something cutting their nose off as a matter of principle, this week.
Public Outreach is NASA's greatest success.

So, I presume we are really referring to "Education". This is problematic. There are 3 levels of education - K-12, undergrad and grad; for NASA purposes.
NASA, at a broad level, pays for research and technical expertise - they'd prefer, all things being equal, to pay for experienced postdocs and staff, not raw grad students. But, where you get experienced postdocs etc from, is grad students; and grad students need sweeteners to encourage them along - like, for example the NASA Graduate Student Research Fellowship Program, or just the privilege of being paid just above minimum wage to work full time on actual data acquired from actual satellites at an approximate marginal cost of $5000 per hour. Paying $9-12 per hour for analysis that data the doesn't sound so bad, as opposed to the princely wage of ~ $20-25 per hour a postdoc gets. To be fair, it might take several
hundred hours to analyse a single hour of data, but actually doing so is better then hoping someone will get to looking at it in their spare time between babying undergrads through intro labs.
NASA needs the graduate students to keep the pipeline of experiences researchers flowing.

Undergrad - well, physical science undergrads are still under the misapprehension that they need to actually pay for their education (I suspect that a fair market for competent physical science undregrads now is such that they could all get full scholarships and stipends, if they knew to ask, so nobody go tell them now). So, maybe NASA could cut back there; not that they do much, some summer support to suck them in, a few merit scholarships as teasers, and a quite valuable minority and women effort, which I presume will be kept going.

So, K-12? Well, that is the DoE bread'n'butter stuff, and it is expensive. Is that what NASA will cut?

So, why would that matter.
Well, DoE, from my idiosyncratic perspective, is a bit funny about science education:
they really do mostly do K-12 stuff, which is actually the biggest sub-sector by far (and education is a very large industrial sector in any post-industrial economy). But here is the thing: DoE worries about Educational processes, pedagogy, learning methodologies. Their primary interaction is with the Schools of Education, not Science. They worry about the people who transmit to the students, not so much the content.

And here is where I worry. Pedagogy is important. Understanding how people learn helps in education (although it would be reassuring if this were a progressive, not faddish endeavour).
However, you still have to have some actual stuff to teach. In fact, I'd argue that for most students the content is more important than the education process. To put it crudely - it doesn't matter if kids have an efficient way of learning arithmetic if no multiplication tables have been generated for the teachers to teach them.

There is a rule of thumb, that to teach effectively, you need to be at least one level in knowledge and understanding above the students. At Kindergarten, this would apply to most all teachers, and there having good process is actually the most important thing (as long as it is still delivering content). You need teachers who are patient, helpful and can encourage young kids in developing the ability to learn.
But, high school math requires a teacher with undergrad level understanding of mathematics; not high school, and certainly not middle school.

What NASA, and the NSF, do effectively, is bring content to the schools.
It is partly about the excitement of new results and flashy graphics, but even that is pedagogically important - science is not a "dead" subject, it is active with new results continually generated by real people who went to school once.
It is also a matter of bringing science as a process to the schools, and to show that the foundational subjects matter in real life. You need to understand "units", arithmetic and algebra, or your precious Mars spacecraft will go SPLAT.
Facts also matter:
Space is Big
Earth orbits the Sun
There are lots of Stars like the Sun
There are Planets around other Stars
There may be water on Mars
Life thrives where there is water
Universe is Old, Very Old; but in a real sense Not Infinitely Old

etc and so forth

The other thing NASA and NSF do effectively through their education program is thrust the carrot of education$ into researcher faces. It is important to communicate your results to the public and back into the education chain, not just because it is an intrinsic good, but because we pay you, and we say it is important and good, and here is some real $$$ to back it up.
Department of Education just does not have that direct link to active researchers. In large part because there is little link between the science departments and the schools of education (and there is fault on both sides there).

So, cutting education$ from the science agencies is likely to be harmful and not something that can be repaired by telling the DoE to cover the base.

But... in the short term people want to protect the ongoing research; there are real people working right now who would like to continue being paid; hardware partly or fully built that needs to be made use of, and data that needs to be collected and analysed.
Short term, you just hope that things will get better in the long term.


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