related subjects throughout high school and college. Such projects have the potential to influence the scientific and technological literacy of teachers and students and to contribute to the development of a scientifically and technologically literate workforce, for NASA and throughout the U.S. economy.
NASA may be particularly well positioned to increase interest in technology and engineering. Although the term “STEM education” is often used for the K-12 level in U.S. education, there is historically very little focus in K-12 curricula and in the education programs of federal agencies on the technology and engineering components of the acronym. NASA’s expertise in engineering could contribute to helping to fill the gap. With the challenges and lessons learned from designing and building spacecraft and advanced flight systems, NASA could bring the topic of technological challenges and the processes of engineering design to K-12 STEM education.
NASA is more widely known to the U.S. public than any other federal science agency and associated in the public mind with the challenges and excitement of space exploration (Hopkins, 2007b). The high level of public interest generated by its missions means that NASA has the capability to inspire students in a way that other education-related agencies or institutions cannot. There is no doubt that the thrill of space exploration can act as a magnet to attract public interest in science. Downloading the latest pictures from the surface of Mars or from the Hubble Space Telescope can be a catalyst for the eventual formulation of deeper questions: Was there ever life on Mars? How do you design a vehicle that can cross the terrain of Mars? What drives the expansion of the universe? The exploration of these questions may lead to greater interest in and future engagement in science and engineering topics. The inspirational role NASA plays with the public has the potential to draw students to the pursuit of academic study and eventual careers in STEM areas and thus makes NASA a valuable player in STEM education.
The agency’s access to the public through print, television, and electronic media also affords it a distinctive opportunity to engage and interest students in aerospace science and engineering. For example, television coverage of a Mars Rover and the pictures it sends back can draw millions of viewers. When this coverage is supplemented by a well-designed web presence that provides teachers and students with access to more in-depth exploration of the data and what the scientists are learning from their work, it can become a rich and widely available educational resource. NASA uses this approach to share the excitement and the discoveries of its missions (National Research Council, 2007c).