7 mins read 26 Feb 2021

How can every child find a place in Space Education?

The Space Industry is now a valid STEM career path for more and more students worldwide, and yet STEM education routinely fails to attract a cohort of learners wider than the traditional audience. There is a particular need to make it relevant to female and minority students - and in this article, Jonathan Nalder shares a focus that is turning this around.

Space. Dark, dangerous, infinite. A little daunting for anyone thinking about it as a focus for their career, let alone someone from a non-traditional science background. While it is true that the mysterious qualities of space are what helps make it an attractive field of study and work, how to involve girls and other minorities with a non-hard science bent has proved just as mysterious a challenge. 

Celebrating great pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, Margaret Hamilton and Sally Ride whose story can speak to groups that are minorities in the space industry certainly helps. And acknowledging the place of design and creative arts by including A in STEM to make STEAM has also gone a long way to helping students of any background see a place for themselves.

And yet statistics still show there is a long way to go. As reported by Space Australia’s Kathryn Ross, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Scientific and technical services have the largest gender pay gap of any Australian industry. Prior to this, while still in school, statistics show that boys outnumber girls 1 to 3 in Senior Physics and that females make up only 29% of Physics and Astronomy graduates. Further afield, the USA-based Pew Research Centre reports that Hispanics comprise 16% of the U.S. workforce but only 7% of all STEM workers and that among employed adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, Blacks are just 7% of the STEM workforce despite making up 11% of the population.

Anecdotally, my experience of 20 years in classrooms has revealed that almost all STEM subjects roughly match these kinds of numbers. Beyond that however is my conclusion that even without taking gender or race into account, there is a cohort of students naturally inclined to traditional STEM approaches, but a larger group who are just not. So should we just accept the status quo and slow and steady progress towards wider participation? Considering that signs point to today's young people being alive when humans first become an interplanetary species, it might be time to try a different approach if the vital decisions and events ahead are to benefit from as wide a set of perspectives and ideas as possible.

First images being received from NASA Perseverance on Mars after landing on the planet, earlier this week. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/NBI-UCPH.

Since 2018, I’ve pioneered a set of space education workshops in response to this challenge. Beginning with FirstKidsOnMars.net, these workshops have deliberately eschewed the standard (though still important) space workshop topics of how to survive in space or on Mars, or how to code a rover or build a rocket. These topics certainly do appeal to a core of STEM students - however, my own non-traditional STEM background inspired me to look for more universal themes to base workshops around. Thus, instead of asking ‘what do humans need to survive on Mars?’, First Kids on Mars shifts to 10 years after a Mars colony has been established and asks students to puzzle out what would be the first thing humans need to be happy on Mars?’, or ‘what is the first thing kids would need to be happy on Mars?’. 

As students use design thinking and FutureWe.org’s five future literacy phases to work on this challenge, the answer they come up with could be hard-science related such as ‘better radiation shielding’, or ‘better water and air filtration' - but so far in 40 workshops, I have found the change in topic sees non-core STEM students explore a much wider range of ideas that instead fit with their core interests. These alternative solutions can be designing ‘the first sport on Mars’ as a way to keep people healthy and competitive or assigning precious water resources to create a rainbow on Mars. This last one from students at Maroochydore State School did at first seem like a joke or fantasy idea - and yet when the student group explained how people missing Earth would come from all over Mars to visit and see something so wonderful and rare, it made sense how it would help that particular base thrive while also bringing joy.

Credit: Jonathan Nalder.

Another great discussion that illustrates this shift was during a session with year 9 boys asking questions over Skype of Astrogeologist Dr Jonathan Clarke, president of the Mars Society of Australia. The students had been tasked with asking about Mars itself as part of the research or empathy stage of their learning. However, one group of non-core STEM students inadvertently skipped ahead to the wider human issues by asking ‘will we have wifi for playing Fortnight on Mars?’. Like the rainbow idea, this at first seems ridiculous and off-topic - however, Dr Jonathan graciously led a discussion about how yes, to be in communication with friends and play together is a very important human need. It would have been very easy to try to force such students back to the core topic - but their later work through the workshop showed they had found a place within the space education workshop to engage with STEM from their perspective instead.

Credit: Jonathan Nadler.

In 2020 this direct face to face approach of course was interrupted by the COVID19 pandemic. Fortunately, by teaming up with STEM Punks, a renowned STEM and Design Thinking organisation that were in the middle of moving their classes online, the approach described above is still available to students. In fact, vastly more students from anywhere with connectivity can now participate.

At the same time, a contact from the days of the first Mars-themed workshops, Dr Michaela Musilova, had become Director of HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), one of the world’s premier space base research stations. Michaela has always devoted her precious time to inspiring students and has so far contributed three videos explaining space habitat life to STEM Punks students while also participating in a smart garden sensor experiment that sees the same device which students use also installed and in use at HI-SEAS. This first-hand input from a leading female STEM-industry professional has further allowed the learning experiences to touch on elements such as food, happiness and health that affect everyone no matter what planet they are on.

Credit: Jonathan Nadler.

While it feels much longer, this online focus is still less than a year old, with more to be done to translate the human-problems first method that has been working so well. You can find the current versions of classes at STEM Punks space industry page - and the organisation and I are always open to ideas and partnerships that can take this approach to broaden STEM even further.


Jonathan Nalder

Through over 20 years in Education, Jonathan (MEd, BA/ BEd) has seen how life-long learning, digital tools (STEAM, AR/VR, mobile) & ‘spacethinking’ transform lives. Now, as founder of the First Kids on Mars, Space Futures Coach for STEM Punks, an Advance Queensland Digital Champion, SpaceNation activity designer, HundrEd Advisor (Finland) & CoSpaces AR/VR Ambassador, he actively helps leaders & learners shift thinking to embrace the coming fully digital, and ‘off-Earth’ era as their most human selves via tools developed for STEM Punks and the Future Ready Framework (FutureWe.org/framework). 

Recently Jonathan’s work was recognised as part of STEM Punks receiving the global Big Innovation Award 2021. He also presented at the Space Habitat Event in late 2020 with HI-SEAS Commander Dr Michaela Musilova, spoke at the world’s largest Education conference ISTE online about a Dark Skies project, and was recognised by CleverBooks as a Top 50 innovator with Augmented Reality.