Science - Students could feel the gravity of Nasa cuts

7th June 2013 at 01:00
Links between education and space missions face 'termination'

Its exploits, from landing the first man on the Moon to exploring Mars, have captured the imaginations of millions of young minds. But the future of science education could be set back decades after budget cuts at US space agency Nasa, which will eliminate projects that link schools to space missions.

The Obama administration's budget for 2014 cuts about $47.5 million (#163;31 million) of education programmes at the world's most famous space agency and "consolidates" them into the work of other organisations. A further $26.8 million will be "refocused" through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education and the Smithsonian Institution.

But scientists and science educators fear that pioneering projects allowing students and teachers to work with Nasa scientists will grind to a halt while schemes are forced to start from scratch, bidding for funds from the other agencies.

"This network took decades to develop. We're at a crucial point in time right now when it's about to be demolished," said Ed Prather, education officer for the American Astronomical Society and associate professor at the University of Arizona's department of astronomy. "A cadre of people are going to get dismantled as a network and we're going to have to wait maybe for decades for them to be reassembled.

"It's hard to see how the impact of the education portfolio will be preserved in this process in an effective or timely manner."

Nasa operates dozens of education projects, from a contest to design a moon buggy to opportunities for students to design experiments in low-gravity environments (see panel, left). While specific programmes such as college scholarships and projects supporting minority students will be preserved, scientists said that all the work linked to Nasa's science missions is threatened with "abrupt termination".

Mr Prather said that the link between education and Nasa's missions is vital. "There's a lot of in-kind help or collaborative efforts that are achieved by having the education effort tied to the Nasa mission," he said. "There are a lot of education-driven people who happen to be scientists and engineers and people working on these Nasa missions who more or less volunteer their efforts to helping with education programmes."

Students are also awed by the connection to Nasa's work in space. "It's the peak of scientific and engineering achievement and a beautiful demonstration of what we can do as people, as a society. It has a cachet that's really different," Mr Prather said.

Kathryn Harper, director of development and communications at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, said that Nasa's education programmes are "pioneering" and "authentic" in the way that they embed educators directly in the science missions.

"We strongly urge the administration to listen to the collective voices expressing concern over this proposal - experts who successfully deliver science education programmes every day to the educators and learners who shape our future," she said.

Even if it can put a man on the Moon, Nasa is still prey to the habits of government bureaucracy, and Mr Prather said there was a risk that the agency would focus its efforts on saving programmes with greater numbers of participants, rather than those that are the most effective educationally. "It's Nasa math," he said.

Anu Ojha, director of education at Britain's National Space Centre, said that Nasa has been forced into several years of cuts to education because of the spiralling costs of the successor to the Hubble telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. "It's a real regret. The overall picture is that Nasa is cutting back on education," he said. "Am I concerned? Yes. Other space agencies, everyone does look to Nasa. But it doesn't necessarily mean that other space agencies are going to founder."

Ann Marie Trotta, Nasa's public affairs officer for education, said that the agency had been asked to find efficiencies and reduce duplicated effort, but remained committed to providing "stimulating STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education that reflects the diversity of our missions and programmes". The budget is due to be enacted on 1 October if it is approved by Congress.

LEARNING BOOSTERS

Nasa's education programmes include:

The Great Moonbuggy Race. In this annual competition, high-school students (aged 14-18) and undergraduates build moonbuggies of their own design, to recreate the lunar experience of the Apollo astronauts.

Dropping in a Microgravity Environment, a year-long project in which high-school students develop an experiment carried out in low gravity. Nasa scientists choose four projects to test in the agency's drop tower, which creates a microgravity environment similar to that of space.

National Space Club Scholars Project, a summer internship that allows high-school students to work with space scientists and engineers, in fields ranging from Earth and space systems science to computer science and engineering.

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