An Astronaut’s Guide to Improving STEM Education (and What Space Is Really Like)
In 1995, NASA astronaut Dr. Bernard Harris became the first African American to perform a spacewalk. The occasion? His second space shuttle flight during a mission that included a rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir. In all, Dr. Harris ended up spending more than 18 days in space over two trips, traveling more than 7 million miles.
Dr. Harris is well-known as an astronaut, but throughout his career he’s also collected an impressive list of STEM credentials, including an M.D., a masters in biomedical science and training as a flight surgeon. Since returning to earth, he's focused on helping others do the same.
Today, he's the CEO of NMSI, the National Math and Science Initiative, a 12-year old group that got its start as a way to stem the tide on a troubling statistic: By 2020, a majority of jobs will require some sort of postsecondary training, including many that touch on science and technology. But too few students, especially minorities and other underrepresented groups, get an adequate grounding in these areas.
In response, NMSI runs programs designed to boost the number of STEM teachers, increase student access to AP courses and train existing teachers.
If you take students’ culture, their backgrounds, into account and teach in a culturally responsive way, then you have a better opportunity for improving their learning.Dr. Bernard Harris
Recently, the group has also begun exploring a new avenue for reaching students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in STEM. It’s called CRT or Culturally Responsive Teaching, which posits that students learn best when teachers make some intentional connection to their background or lived experience.
This week, Dr. Harris joins us on the EdSurge podcast to share his thoughts about STEM education and CRT. And space fans, be sure to listen to the end as we close the podcast with a super fun rapid-fire Q&A, answering all your burning questions—like what space food really tastes like, the biggest space myth and what astronauts see when they're up there (hint: a lot of stars).
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: What is the concept behind Culturally Responsive Teaching?
Bernard Harris: It really is fairly simple. It says that when students arrive on these campuses all across this country, they arrive with certain biases that are based on the communities that they come from, the cultures in which are a part of, their environment in which they’ve come from.
And we’ve approached teaching up to this point that we bring in students from many different sectors in different communities and we force them to learn our way. What we're finding, especially in underperforming schools in rural areas and urban cities, is that the performances of those students are really based on their inability to adjust to how we teach them.
If you take students’ culture, their backgrounds, into account and teach in a culturally responsive way, then you have a better opportunity for improving their learning.
What’s an example that might help a student see themselves in a way that's relevant to their lives?
There are areas in the country where STEM courses are not even offered, and we call those STEM deserts.
One way to do that is to invite students to talk about their background, so that the educator gets a good feel for their prior experience, the communities in which they've come from, even talking about their ethnicity in terms of whether they're African American or Latino or from another country.
And by learning that, you do two things. You engage the student. You tell the student that they are valuable and that where they come from is valuable. And then, [with] some of the professional development that's now being taught around this area, we then provide the tools for those teachers to slightly revise the way in which they teach the students. And we have found it made a significant difference.
Do you think the lack of diversity in K-12 STEM teaching is a problem?
I think it can be. I believe that no matter what background students come from, and no matter what their ethnicity is, an effective teacher who takes into account the environment in which they come from can effectively teach those students.
I’m not saying an African American teacher has to teach an African American student. But I am saying that an African American teacher should be able to, with the right training, be able to teach that African American student, that Hispanic student, that white student. And that's what we are trying to do at NMSI.
How long would it take a teacher to go through a CRT training program?
We teach our teachers in a sort of a train-the-trainer model. We have what we call institutes, and we have it in the summer, and then we also have them in the spring and the fall where we bring thousands of teachers from all over the country for anywhere from a four to five day training. And part of that training is teaching them how to teach STEM subjects and using project-based learning and 21st-century skills.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your partnership with Sylvan Learning, the tutoring center company. You’re working with them to identify and serve what's known as STEM deserts. Can you talk about what a STEM desert is?
There are areas in the country where STEM courses are not even offered, and we call those STEM deserts. Or there may be not enough of these elements [such as state funding for education or teacher certification], to make learning effective. Our whole objective is for us to be able to see where the gaps are and then where we can provide those services to those schools, communities and states. Of course, we can't do everything, so we've also formed a partnership of like-minded educational groups and partners to support us.
Part of this work is offering supplementary courses like computer science in these STEM deserts to bridge that gap, correct?
It's more than that. In the STEM deserts, it may mean that there are not enough STEM courses being offered. For example, algebra is one of the key courses that you should be taking in secondary education. There are some schools in this country that don't even offer it. They don't have algebra teachers.
And so our primary job is to go into that school and take that teacher and give them the tools in order to teach math, for example, or teach science or teach chemistry. And then, on top of that, we have added computer science.
We just started this year a new computer science initiative. We're beginning to teach computer science starting in the first grade all the way up to 12th grade.
These STEM deserts can be found in unexpected geographic areas. Were there any surprises for you in where they were located?
Certainly. When we talk about education and how it may not be as impactful as it should, we always think about the inner city. But there are communities around this nation in rural areas where they don't have enough teachers, or the teachers are generalists. And they've been required to teach chemistry and the STEM courses without that expertise. This is where we come in, because we'll take those teachers, we'll bring them in and we'll give them the principles that they need in order to effectively teach those courses.
What do you miss most about being in space?
I miss looking at the earth from space. I was lucky enough on my second mission to do a space walk. I donned this 350 lbs space suit, and I walked outside. It really is a misnomer. You're not walking. You’re using handrails and pulling yourself along since you’re floating.
And I got situated in our robotic arm. We had a special foot, a hole that that kept our feet in place. And I got lifted up above the payload bay about 35 feet, and I had a beautiful view of the crew in the spaceship. And then, behind that was the planet earth and behind that was this sea of stars called the Milky Way. That galaxy is incredible, and all of this as we're going around the world at 17,500 miles an hour seeing a sunset or sunrise every 45 minutes.
For more of this interview, and to hear Dr. Harris’s thoughts on his time in space, listen to the podcast version.