NASA's Elementary and Secondary Program: Review and Critique


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Executive Summary

The federal role in precollege science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is receiving increasing attention in light of the need to support public understanding of science and to develop a strong scientific and technical workforce in a competitive global economy. Federal science agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), are being looked to as a resource for enhancing precollege STEM education and bringing more young people to scientific and technical careers.

For NASA and other federal science agencies, concerns about workforce and public understanding of science also have an immediate local dimension. The agency faces an aerospace workforce skewed towards those close to retirement and job recruitment competition for those with science and engineering degrees. In addition, public support for the agency's missions stems in part from public understanding of the importance of the agency's contributions in science, engineering and space exploration.

COMMITTEE TASK

In the NASA authorization act of 2005 (P.L. 109-555 Subtitle B-Education, Sec. 614) Congress directed the agency to support a review and evaluation of its precollege education program to be carried out by the National Research Council. The legislation mandated that the review include recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the program and address four tasks:

  1. an evaluation of the effectiveness of the overall program in meeting its defined goals and objectives;
  2. an assessment of the quality and educational effectiveness of the major components of the program, including an evaluation of the adequacy of assessment metrics and data collection requirements available for determining the effectiveness of individual projects;
  3. an evaluation of the funding priorities in the program, including a review of the funding level and trend for each major component of the program and an assessment of whether the resources made available are consistent with meeting identified goals and priorities; and
  4. a determination of the extent and effectiveness of coordination and collaboration between NASA and other Federal agencies that sponsor science, technology, and mathematics education activities.

NASA, in consultation with the NRC, interpreted the charge to mean a focus on the Elementary and Secondary Program managed by the Office of Education. This program includes seven projects:

  • the Aerospace Education Services Program (AESP)
  • the Science Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA)
  • NASA Explorer Schools (NES)
  • the Digital Learning Network (DLN)
  • Education Flight Projects (EFP)
  • the Educator Astronaut Program (EAP)
  • the Interdisciplinary National Science Program Incorporating Research and
  • Education (INSPIRE)

The study committee reviewed a wide range of documents related to NASA's programs in precollege STEM education, heard testimony from NASA staff, and commissioned three papers. As is the case with many federal science agencies involved in education outreach, only a limited number of external evaluations of NASA education projects have been conducted. As a consequence, the committee also relied on relevant research evidence and committee members' collective expertise when drawing conclusions about how projects could be improved. The committee developed specific recommendations for only three of the seven projects--NES, AESP, and SEMAA-- because the other four projects had been in place too short a time or lacked sufficient documentation of project performance.

The report provides a summary of the committee's findings regarding the recent history of NASA's education program and K-12 projects (Chapter 2) and the federal context for NASA's role in K-12 education, including discussion of other science agencies (Chapter 3). It also discusses each of the seven projects in depth with specific suggestions for improvement (Chapter 4). Finally, it reviews NASA's current approach to project review and evaluation and offers suggestions for improving the process (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 of the report details the committee's conclusions and recommendations.

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