Next Generation Science
Looking Out, Looking In
Author: Anna Van Dordrecht
In 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1. Its mission was to study the solar system and then space beyond. The mission was one of discovery, looking outward into the unknown. But in 1980, when the craft went past Saturn, renowned astronomer Carl Sagan had the idea to turn the probe around and take a picture of Earth. As it turns out, it’s hard to switch back and forth between looking outward and inward in space, and many opposed the idea and the potential problems it could cause for Voyager. However, a NASA administrator pushed the idea forward, and after working through logistics and concerns, on February 14th, 1990, Voyager took the photo now known as Pale Blue Dot in which Earth is shown from 6 billion kilometers away and appears as a speck less than a pixel in size.
Several years later, Sagan shared the photo during a lecture at Cornell University and gave a now famous reflection on what that picture reveals. According to Sagan, “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena...our posturings, our imagined self-importance..are challenged by this point of pale light.” There is a vast (some argue infinite) universe beyond Earth to discover, and so humans, naturally curious, are driven to discover, to look out beyond our point of light. And yet, Sagan concludes his reflection on the picture by saying, “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” As much as we need to look outward, we equally need to look inward and take care of this tiny point of light on which all known life exists.
NASA still balances this juxtaposition of looking out and looking in. Scientists and engineers from multiple facilities are actively working to send people to Mars. At the same time, NASA is using innovative technology and the expertise of scientists nationally and globally to look inward and study what’s happening here on the pale blue dot.
I recently had the privilege of attending the Last Flight of NASA’s Worldwide Survey of the Atmosphere at the NASA Armstrong facility. Since 2016, NASA has been conducting its Atmospheric Tomography Mission (ATom). A team of scientists are using NASA’s DC-8 aircraft- a flying lab- to sample the airborne particles and gases in the atmosphere above the ocean worldwide in every season. They are currently on their fourth and final expedition. According to Prof. Michael J. Prather, one of the scientists working on ATom, it is “a mission of understanding, not discovery.” ATom will give us a picture of what’s going on in the air and how we might respond to take care of earth.
While the mission isn’t complete, several key findings have so far come from looking inward. First, there are striking levels of pollutants over the middle of the oceans, far from land and pollution sources. Second, the production of new ozone over the ocean is far higher than models predicted. Scientists don’t yet know what causes this production. Finally, ATom has shown where atmospheric models based on traditional measurement tools such as satellites work well to explain and predict what’s happening and where they don’t fit or don’t capture detail. This will help NASA improve models in order to better explain human impact on the atmosphere, make predictions about the future, and be a source of information and ideas for those advocating for change.
NASA’s dual focus on discovery and understanding, on looking outward and inward, provides a great model for science educators. Teachers greatly benefit from opportunities to look both ways. I recently took a group of science teachers on local industry tours to witness firsthand what STEAM skills are needed in the workplace. During our tour of Medtronic, a biotechnology company, one of the teachers remarked, “You know, I’ve never been in a lab before.” While learning how various science skills and fields are integrated to run a winery, another remarked, “When I go back and students ask me when they’ll ever need to know what they’re learning in science, for the first time I feel like I’ll have a real answer for them.” These teachers’ comments underscore a great need for science educators to have opportunities to look out and learn what’s happening in scientific fields and industries. Many went right from their own educational experience to the classroom, and yet we expect them to provide students with an understanding of who scientists and engineers are and design lessons where they engage in the same practices as these professionals. Teachers must be given professional learning opportunities that provide an outward lens.
At the same time, teachers need support looking inward at their own classrooms and students. In order to successfully implement three dimensional lessons, teachers need time to plan with their students in mind and also to seek out resources and materials for their individual contexts. Teachers also need the space to plan for and voice to advocate for individual students. An elementary student I recently interviewed said she didn’t feel successful at science, because when she goes home she has to watch her sister’s baby until she goes to bed, so she can’t do her science homework. I wondered whether the teacher knew this girl’s story and if so whether she was given the tools and freedom to provide support that might change the student’s science identity.
This practice of looking outward and inward is something we need to provide for students as well. Recently, I’ve conducted a number of student interviews, and a common thread is that students all want to know how science in the classroom relates to the larger world and their lives. We need to be strategic about bringing in stories, phenomena, and activities that make these connections clear. We also need to give students a chance to interact with the people in the field right now. There are a number of programs that are making this easier such as Explorer Classroom by National Geographic which allows classes to learn about fieldwork as it’s happening. This type of experience sparks interest and curiosity and helps students imagine themselves as scientists and engineers, something that is critical if we want more of them to pursue STEM careers.
In order for students to imagine themselves in STEM careers, we also need to provide opportunities for them to look inward and figure out what makes them “tick”- what their strengths and interests are and how these relate to the world. Barry L. Lefer, another of the leaders for the ATom project, gave this advice to STEM students, “You don’t have to be a math expert. There’s lots of different types of science and different roles in science. What we need is for people to be curious.” Students need the chance to understand what makes them curious, what they are driven to discover and understand, and how this might fit into the world of science. They also need to have individual and group experiences in school that help them develop persistence when faced with tough problems and invite them to collaborate or seek out help when challenged.
Just as Sagan and the NASA scientists found in the 80s, it’s hard to go back and forth between looking outward and inward. When you try to move between the two, learn all you can, and respond accordingly, the balance can be precarious. But in this again, NASA provides us a model to build on. Its outward focus has allowed us to see and go farther than previous generations could have dreamed, and it has continued to spark our innate curiosity and inspire innovation. The inward focus has helped us to pinpoint what we’re responsible for and how we can work towards positive change. It also provides hope that change can actually happen. For example, when NASA compared models of NO2 emissions in industrial areas between 2005 and 2016, they showed a significant decrease due to new regulations put in place since pollution concerns were identified in earlier studies.
Looking out at what’s happening and what’s possible and looking in at how we can better support and care for our world, educators, and students isn’t going to change anything on its own. It’s what we do with these perspectives that will have an impact. But deciding to look both ways is a challenging and important step. Let us commit to keeping a dual focus and to responding with thoughtful, purposeful, and hopeful action. Then we can explore and discover what’s possible while caring for our personal pale blue dot.