Not since the launch of Sputnik has the United States seen such tremendous attention to the value and importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. In a world with rapidly expanding technologies and increasingly complex political and social challenges, Americans are expected to able to put STEM knowledge and skills to work in their daily lives. Recognizing this, major stakeholders in America’s STEM landscape—from federal agencies to private enterprise to local communities—are investing in efforts to enhance STEM education and stimulate public engagement in STEM issues. As one of the country’s leading STEM agencies with a brand that resonates deeply with the American public, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a particular role to play in helping America realize the promise of STEM education.
In an effort to harness the potential of NASA’s resources, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) underwent a significant restructuring of STEM education-related activities in 2013. The new portfolio of competitive award investments, NASA SMD’s Science Activation (SciAct) Program, endeavors to increase the overall coherence of SMD’s efforts in support of more effective, sustainable, and efficient use of SMD science discoveries and learning experiences. One of SciAct’s stated goals is to enable NASA scientists and engineers to engage more effectively and efficiently in STEM learning environments with learners of all ages.
In 2019, SciAct is nearing the end of its first funding cycle. As SciAct transitions into its second round of funding, it is important that SciAct stakeholders take stock of their work, address challenges, and plan for the future. A few critical questions emerge: How is SciAct designed, structured, and
implemented to address its stated goals? What modifications can be made to current program elements to improve its efficacy? What should SciAct stakeholders consider when making changes to the existing program? Finally, what is NASA’s role in supporting STEM education in the United States, and how well is SciAct positioned to fulfill that role?
In order to address these questions, NASA tasked the Board on Science Education (BOSE) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine with conducting a review of the SciAct portfolio. In response to NASA’s request, BOSE convened the Committee to Assess Science Activation (see the committee’s charge in Box 1-1). The 14-member committee included individuals with expertise in earth science, space science, planetary science, collaborative models and partnerships, collective impact, education policy, and learning and teaching in science and engineering (see Appendix B for biographical sketches). In this report, the committee provides a comprehensive review of the SciAct portfolio and offers recommendations for improving the program.
NASA is one of many entities (i.e., agencies, institutions, and organizations) working to improve educational experiences and opportunities in STEM for learners of all ages. To address its charge, it was important for
the committee to understand the complex education landscape in which NASA SciAct operates, and the contextual factors that NASA should consider in order to define SciAct’s appropriate role in STEM education nationally. This section briefly describes the U.S. education system as it relates to the role of the federal government. Additionally, it reviews the current STEM education context in the nation, and why it is appropriate for NASA to have a specific role in this domain.
Federal Involvement in STEM Education
In the United States, state, local, and tribal governments are primarily responsible for public preK–12 education. The federal government does not set a national curriculum and it cannot mandate state or local participation in federal programs. Yet, even with limited authority over public education, the federal government is uniquely positioned to augment ongoing efforts in the formal education system through legislation and funding. The federal government also plays an important role in informal education, providing management and financial support for many museums, aquariums, planetariums, zoos, science centers, libraries, and after-school programs. Moreover, the government can shape how different parts of the education system interact, for example, by calling for the blending of best practices across different education communities (e.g., informal and formal) to ensure that consistent, high-quality education experiences are uniformly afforded across the entire system (National Science and Technology Council, 2018).
Several federal agencies receive funding through Congress in support of their STEM education-related programs, research, and activities, including the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services (i.e., National Institutes of Health), the Department of Commerce (i.e., National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]), the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as NASA. These agencies support STEM education in a number of ways, including but not limited to sharing expertise in science, developing programs and curricular materials that foster engaging opportunities for learners to understand the nature of science, offering in-service training and instructional resources to teachers, and funding university-based research and development and research on STEM education (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2018; National Science and Technology Council, 2015).
In 2016, the most current year with available data, 163 STEM education programs and activities were in operation across all federal agencies. The National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM
Education (CoSTEM)1 is an interagency body responsible for coordinating STEM education programs, investments, and activities across federal agencies, and developing and implementing a STEM education strategic plan, to be updated every 5 years. The Subcommittee on Federal Coordination in STEM Education (FC-STEM)2 advises and supports the work of CoSTEM in developing strategic investments in STEM education and in formulating and implementing the strategic plan. Historically, the primary objectives for federal investments in STEM education have been to (1) increase the number of STEM degrees, (2) prepare people to enter the STEM workforce, and (3) support STEM education research and development (Granovskiy, 2018). Indeed, the latest 5-year strategic plan for the federal government’s efforts in STEM education emphasized STEM workforce development and STEM literacy as top national priorities (National Science and Technology Council, 2018).
In the last decade, annual federal investments in STEM education have remained relatively stable ranging from $2.8 billion to $3.4 billion (Granovskiy, 2018). NSF, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education are the major federal sponsors in STEM education both in terms of number of programs and total investment, but other agencies, such as NASA and NOAA, have education agendas as part of their missions. In fiscal 2019, NASA received $155 million for its STEM education and public outreach activities. Of this amount, $110 million was directed toward the Office of STEM Engagement (formerly the Office of Education) and $45 million was directed toward the SMD, which houses the SciAct Program (American Institute of Physics, 2018).
The National Landscape of STEM Education
Understanding the potential contributions of the SciAct portfolio requires an understanding of the current landscape of STEM education. Recent data indicate that while Americans’ basic STEM skills have modestly improved over the past two decades, other countries are doing a better job of preparing their students in science, mathematics, and engineering fields, indicating the growing need for improvements in STEM education in the United States (National Science Board, 2018; National Science and Technology Council, 2018). To help meet this need, national education goals have evolved over the past two decades to reflect new science,
2 FC-STEM, chartered in 2014, is a committee of members from 11 federal agencies and the Smithsonian Institution: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/NSTC/CoSTEM-FCSTEM-%20Charter-0114-SIGNED.pdf.
mathematics, and engineering education standards and new evidence on how people learn.
New research on the nature of learning across the life span has led to greater understanding of the factors that shape learning and what this means for the design of learning experiences. Learning is influenced by the knowledge, motivation, and cultural experiences of the individual, but also by the cultural and social characteristics of the learning environment (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2018a). Learning is a dynamic, ongoing process, during which the learner actively constructs their own understanding through social interactions with other learners and with teachers or facilitators. Research also confirms that learning occurs across multiple spaces over the life span, not solely in formal school settings (National Research Council [NRC], 2009). Indeed, much of NASA’s programming occurs in these informal settings. For more information on informal learning environments, see Chapter 4 of this report.
These insights about learning have led to new standards for STEM education that call for learners not just to accumulate factual knowledge, but to be able to deploy their knowledge in meaningful ways. For example, in 2012, the National Academies released A Framework for K–12 Science Education, which articulated a new vision for science education in which leaners actively engage in science and engineering practices over multiple years of school to deepen their understanding of the core ideas inherent in these disciplines and make connections to cross-cutting concepts (NRC, 2012a). The Framework outlines core ideas in the physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, as well as the crosscutting concepts that are relevant across these disciplines (i.e., structure and function or cause and effect). It also describes the science and engineering practices that scientists and engineers employ in their work and that learners should engage in as they learn science and engineering. The Framework was the impetus for the development of new K–12 science standards, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which have been adopted or adapted by 44 states, reaching about 71 percent of U.S. students (National Science Teaching Association, 2019). The NGSS and similar standards outline a set of performance expectations that integrate the vision of the Framework into statements that articulate the ways students will demonstrate competency. It is important for federal science agencies, including NASA, to be aware of advances in the understanding of learning and of current efforts to improve science education through new standards.
STEM Education at NASA
NASA has been a long-standing stakeholder in science and engineering education with programs dating back to its authorizing legislation in 1958.
This legislation established the agency’s responsibility to ensure that the United States remains a leader in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research. Additionally, this legislation codified NASA’s obligation to effectively share knowledge of the atmosphere and space with the public, thus providing a return on the public’s investment in NASA science and engineering.
NASA’s involvement in STEM education is supported by the science, engineering, and exploration missions of the agency, and NASA’s notable assets offer a rare opportunity to contribute to the STEM education landscape. These assets include state-of-the-art facilities; cutting-edge technology; awe-inspiring missions; expert astronauts, scientists, and engineers; and a wealth of images, data, scientific findings, and compelling narratives from more than five decades of spaceflight missions. These exceptional resources provide opportunities for students, teachers, and the general public to engage meaningfully with the latest science and engineering advancements, as well as to learn about new science discoveries and to acquire new skills in STEM. Additionally, NASA’s resources are especially well suited to inspiring and motivating learners. Missions involving human spaceflight, as well as missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope and Mars Exploration Rovers, are powerful ways to naturally pique learners’ interest. The search for life beyond Earth and the exploration of the moon and Mars are intrinsically attractive to learners, with the potential to motivate them to pursue eventual careers in STEM areas. Moreover, NASA is more widely known to the U.S. public than any other federal science agency, and has the convening power to facilitate the creation of partnerships among mission scientists, educators, and communications specialists that can serve as one avenue for bringing the expertise and enthusiasm of scientists into the public domain. NASA’s many assets uniquely position it among the federal agencies involved in STEM education and strongly support its role as a key resource for the motivational and content aspects of learning in STEM subjects.
The bulk of STEM education activities at NASA are in the Office of STEM Engagement and the SMD. Traditionally, these two units have employed different approaches to developing and implementing STEM education projects (NRC, 2008). In the case of SMD, a percentage of funds from the major science mission budgets was originally devoted to supporting education activities related to each mission. However, in an effort to improve coordination and maximize collaboration across education and communications activities at NASA, SMD undertook significant restructuring of its STEM education related activities and established the SciAct Program in 2015. This program was established as a collective comprised of 27 competitively selected awardees to further enable NASA scientists and engineers to engage more effectively and efficiently with learners of
all ages, and to foster more effective, sustainable, and efficient use of SMD science discoveries.
Prior to the establishment of the SciAct Program in 2015, the SMD implemented its education and public outreach (E/PO) activities primarily through two means3 (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2010, p. 70). First, an SMD directive issued in 1993 called for each flight mission to allocate at least 1 percent of its total mission budget, excluding the cost of launch vehicles, to E/PO activities (1% model). The second method supported E/PO projects through awards from solicited (e.g., GLOBE Implementation Office) or unsolicited proposals, or as elements of a major research-enabling program (e.g., suborbital science).
The 1 percent model implemented in individual missions mobilized earth and space scientists in a wide range of activities, from speaking at public forums or in classrooms to publishing web content to providing professional development. For example, in early 2015, the New Horizons mission focused on setting the stage for the upcoming first-ever flyby of Pluto through a variety of events called “Plutopaloozas.” These public events were staged at museums and science centers throughout the country, providing educational activities for children and adults. Each event featured several mission scientists and engineers who provided first-person accounts of mission planning and its scientific foundations.
In the past 25 years at NASA, more than 100 missions, on average, have been in development, in operation, or in extension, with equal numbers of education teams funded in those missions under the 1 percent model. Such a large number of teams made coordination across mission activities difficult, leading to duplication and fragmentation of efforts, and potentially inequitable distribution of educational resources. Additionally, under this model, it was difficult to demonstrate impact of the educational efforts related to highly valued goals in education (e.g., systemic improvements and activities that are closely aligned with learners’ needs). Given that the mission education activities did not always leverage education resources within and outside NASA, their reach and potential to go to scale were presumably limited.
In 2013, two separate events occurred that would precede the development of the current SciAct portfolio. First, the release of the 2015 President’s Budget showed a dramatic loss of funding for these activities. Additionally, the release of the 2013 CoSTEM report4 prompted SMD to develop a more efficient internal structure for its program in an effort to
strengthen its contribution to the national efforts to make progress on improving STEM education. This coincided with an internal clarification on the distinction between education and communications at NASA.5
With the approval of the SMD Management Council and subsequent approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), SMD restructured its approach to E/PO and established one desired outcome and four overarching objectives for its education-related endeavor: (1) enable STEM education, (2) improve U.S. scientific literacy, (3) advance national education goals, and (4) leverage efforts through partnerships (for more information on these goals and the vision of SciAct, see Chapter 2 of this report). Additionally, SMD appointed Kristen Erickson as the director for science engagement and partnerships to oversee and provide strategic direction for the SciAct Program. Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the SMD, the current iteration of SciAct was developed and implemented.
SciAct aims to further enable scientists and engineers to engage more effectively with learners of all ages. In addition to recognizing the essential role of the agency’s subject matter experts (SMEs), it places emphasis on the needs of learners and educators; independent evaluation as practiced in the field of STEM education; and collaboration with external partners who deliver learning and instruction more systemically or directly to leverage their expertise for greater and more extensive impact.
After issuing an open call through a NASA Cooperative Agreement Notice (CAN, or a solicitation for proposals), and carrying out a subsequent competitive process of selection, SMD awarded 27 multiyear cooperative agreements in 2016 for a maximum of 10 years: projects are awarded a 5-year base award, and have one 5-year option to extend their agreements. Currently, there are 24 awards (or projects) still in progress that constitute the SciAct Phase 16 portfolio (see Appendix A for more information on the 24 projects). These projects leverage SMD’s astrophysics, earth, heliophysics, and planetary science content and experts to engage learners of
5 Education comprises activities designed to enhance learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content areas using NASA’s unique capabilities, while communications comprises the comprehensive set of functions necessary to effectively convey and provide an understanding of the program, its objectives and benefits to target audiences, the public, and other stakeholders. This includes a diverse, broad, and integrated set of efforts intended to promote interest and foster participation in NASA’s endeavors and to develop exposure to and appreciation for STEM (e.g., media services, multimedia products and services (including Web, social media, and nontechnical publications), and public engagement (outreach) activities and events).
6 The committee notes that in order to delineate timeframe, it refers to SciAct’s “Phase 1” as the first 5 years of SciAct programming. The committee refers to “Phase 2” to signify the next 5 years of programming, to commence in 2020.
all ages in STEM, in both formal and informal settings (see Chapter 3 of this report for more discussion of the portfolio). Additionally, internal collaboration and coordination among the funded projects, as well as infrastructure support, have been put in place to promote overall coherence. Decisions on which projects will continue during Phase 2 of the program (potentially at different levels) will be made in 2020, and opportunities for new projects will be afforded through SMD’s Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) grant solicitation, an annual omnibus solicitation for proposals across all disciplinary areas in SMD.
The establishment of the SciAct Program has enabled SMD to make a more concerted effort in contributing to the national STEM education agenda and enhancing operational effectiveness and efficiency, which is the focus of this report. However, a recent midterm review of NASA’s planetary science investments revealed that some of NASA’s assets are not optimized as much as they might be under this new model (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018d, pp. 77–78). These assets include NASA missions’ results and mission science experts when it comes to defining and providing science content within the E/PO activities, as described earlier in this chapter. This report considers this finding in the context of how SciAct can best leverage its considerable assets while also meeting the needs of the communities it serves.
Based on current national priority areas, federal science agencies have been encouraged to incorporate STEM education more explicitly into their programs, to prioritize policies and practices that place an emphasis on expanding the STEM workforce, and to develop methods and metrics to collect data and track the effectiveness of the STEM programs (National Science and Technology Council, 2018; Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2017). Indeed, these priorities are relevant to SMD’s education mission; therefore, this request for an expert assessment of the SciAct Program to establish priorities for the next phase of the program is timely. National agendas will continue to shape the involvement of federal agencies in STEM education, highlighting the importance of demonstrated efforts (e.g., periodic expert portfolio reviews) to provide compelling justifications for budgeted STEM activities at these agencies going forward. Lastly, given that NASA is one of many federal stakeholders in the STEM education landscape, it is critical for the agency to consider its goals, objectives, and strategy for uniquely contributing to this space.
The National Academies has a long history of providing strategic advice to NASA and other U.S. government agencies on scientific and technical
matters. A snapshot of some of the reports produced in the last decade as a result of these relationships is shown in Box 1-2. At the request of NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the first decadal survey in earth science was conducted by the Space Studies Board (NRC, 2007). Since the 1960s, the National Academies has been asked to conduct these types of studies for federal agencies, and in particular, they have been instrumental in helping NASA to strategically plan for 10 or more years into the future, as it relates to identifying and prioritizing research areas, leading-edge scientific questions, the observations required to answer these questions, and the missions required to facilitate those observations. In recent history, a number of decadal surveys have been conducted by the National Academies in the areas of astronomy and astrophysics (NRC, 2010), life and physical sciences (NRC, 2011a), planetary sciences (NRC, 2011b), and solar and space physics (NRC, 2013b), and again in earth science (NASEM, 2017).
In the area of STEM education, the National Academies has carried out several previous efforts to review and evaluate both NASA’s and NOAA’s education activities. Beginning in 2008, the Board on Science Education of the National Academies was asked to conduct a review and evaluation of NASA’s precollege science, technology, and mathematics education program (housed in NASA headquarters’ Office of STEM Engagement, formerly the Office of Education) as mandated by the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-555 Subtitle B-Education, Sec. 614).7 A 12-member expert committee was appointed to carry out this study, which focused on four areas: (1) the effectiveness of the overall program in meeting its defined goals and objectives, (2) the quality and educational effectiveness of the major components of the program, (3) the funding priorities in the program, and (4) the extent and effectiveness of coordination and collaboration between NASA and other federal agencies invested in science, technology and mathematics education (NRC, 2008).
The committee concluded that NASA’s strengths were its efforts to reach underrepresented groups, its effectiveness in raising awareness of the science and engineering of its missions among K–12 students and teachers, and its demonstrated commitment to funding K–12 STEM education activities. However, the report also highlighted the following barriers to the overall effectiveness of the program: program instability, lack of rigorous evaluation and funding for it, lack of a strategic plan, lack of in-depth experiences to support learning of STEM content, and the nature of science and engineering, budget fluctuations, and lack of systemic coordination with other federal agencies to draw on needed expertise in STEM education project design. The committee also identified a set of recommendations across four broad areas deemed important for improving NASA’s efforts
in elementary and secondary STEM education: (1) defining the nature of NASA’s role in K–12 STEM education, (2) ensuring continuous improvement of projects, (3) establishing partnerships to harness expertise in education, and (4) leveraging information and communications technology more effectively. It is important to note that the SMD’s work, including SciAct, is largely separate from the STEM education efforts emerging from the Office of STEM Engagement, and therefore the above conclusions and recommen-
dations on NASA’s precollege education portfolio do not necessarily reflect the state of the activities within SMD’s education portfolio.
More recently, in 2013, the National Academies conducted an assessment of NASA’s 2014 SMD Science Plan to gauge the agency’s responsiveness to the guidance outlined in the recent NRC decadal surveys (NRC, 2013b). In 2014, the National Academies convened a workshop to explore promising approaches for effectively translating NASA’s missions and scientific discoveries into formal and informal science learning experiences for students and teachers in the K–12 education space (NRC, 2015). In 2017, a series of expert meetings was organized by the National Academies that afforded the space for NASA scientists to hear from education specialists on ways to develop curriculum materials bearing life-relevant content and on ways to leverage subject-matter experts to foster better student engagement in science classrooms (see Box 1-2). The Board on Science Education of the National Academies has been involved in all of the efforts related to federal STEM education programs, and thus was well positioned to undertake this new request to assess the education portfolio of NASA’s SciAct Program.
Unlike traditional consensus studies at the National Academies, the work of this committee revolved primarily around assessing a current program model by applying committee members’ expertise to analyze different facets of SciAct’s design and implementation. In this report, the “evidence” considered by the committee is not published in peer-reviewed journals, but is the physical and oral documentation of the current program design as provided to the committee. In this section, we provide key notes on our interpretation of the charge, and we detail our processes in order to describe in depth the evidence we considered in our effort to assess SciAct and make recommendations for NASA going forward. We conclude by describing how we organized this report.
Interpreting the Charge
In the early phases of this committee’s work, it was necessary to first delineate the task at hand. In consultation with the sponsor, the committee made a series of decisions defining the boundaries of this assignment that have implications for the content of our work. First, this report does not assess the individual efforts of the 24 SciAct projects in meeting the program’s four objectives, but rather considers the impact of the portfolio as a whole (see Appendix A for descriptive information on all 24 projects). The cooperative agreement process utilized by SciAct affords opportunities for proposals that may have a clearly articulated, narrow focus to be considered
for sponsorship without the requirement to address every objective in the CAN. In this way, SciAct seeks to leverage individual project expertise within the collective of the portfolio to yield resources and opportunities that are scientifically accurate, grounded in current education research, reflective of the needs of the education community, and more deeply aligned with science and engineering processes. The committee was charged with conducting an assessment of SciAct’s aggregate program efforts, and not of the specific efforts of individual projects. Moreover, the committee took care not to inadvertently endorse or critique individual project efforts; for this reason, we do not comment on the efficacy of individual project approaches to meeting SciAct goals but rather attempt to characterize trends in the portfolio.
Additionally, this assessment is not designed to compare the effectiveness of SciAct Phase 1 in relationship to the 1 percent model, or any other NASA programming. As a result, the committee declines to make any summative statements about whether or not this model is “better” than its predecessor: Rather, we attempt to make sense of the design and implementation of SciAct in its first phase on its own merits. We consider how well SciAct is positioned to meet its stated goals and objectives, as well as whether or not those goals and objectives are appropriate for the scope of this portfolio, among other questions delineated in our charge.
In order to obtain the evidence necessary to complete this review, the committee held a number of open-session conversations with members of the SciAct portfolio, as well as several experts on various aspects of STEM education. In the first meeting of the committee, we heard testimony from Kristen Erickson, director, science engagement and partnerships at NASA SMD, who provided a comprehensive overview of the history of SciAct, its efforts to reorganize, and the current shape and status of the portfolio. For the PowerPoint slides used by Ms. Erickson in her presentation, see Appendix C on The National Academies Press Webpage at http://www.nap.edu/25569. Ms. Erickson was supported by Dr. Lin Chambers, Science Activation integration manager. Later in that first meeting, the committee heard from three SciAct awardees, who discussed the goals and implementation of their projects: Denise Smith of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Alex Young of NASA Goddard, and Theresa Scherwin of the Institute of Global Environmental Strategies. Throughout the evidence-gathering process, in order to select presenters from the SciAct community of awardees, the committee solicited recommendations from Ms. Erickson in consultation with Dr. Chambers.
Following the first in-person committee meeting, the committee held several virtual conversations with other SciAct awardees, who were able to
provide further insight into their awards and how they fit into the SciAct portfolio. These conversations were organized around themes within the portfolio identified by Ms. Erickson and Dr. Chambers (see Appendix C at http://www.nap.edu/25569), and as with the in-person presentations, presenters were identified from among the awardees by Ms. Erickson and Dr. Chambers. We held three separate conversations on these topics:
- On awards that disseminate information to the public, we heard from Rachel Connolly of WGBH and PBS Learning Media; Ariel Anbar of Infiniscope at Arizona State University; and Jon Miller from the University of Michigan, who is responsible for measuring SciAct’s progress on its science literacy goal.
- On engaging diverse audiences in STEM, we heard from Paul Dusenberry, working with libraries from the Space Science Institute; Kevin Czajkowski working with educators at the University of Toledo; Denise Kopecky with the Challenger Centers from the Challenger Center for Space Science Education; and Paul Martin Arizona State University, who works with museums.
- On the issue of connecting NASA infrastructure, we heard from Kay Ferrari of the Solar Systems Ambassadors Program at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL), and Emily Law from the Solar Systems Treks Program also of NASA JPL. Finally, in order to understand SciAct awardee’s efforts to communicate with one another, Andy Shaner of NASA conducted a virtual tour of the SMD E/PO, an online communication space.
At our second in-person meeting, we heard from individual project evaluators (and their principal investigator counterparts) who detailed their efforts to evaluate their awards’ work toward meeting the goals of SciAct. The committee heard from Jackie Delisi of the Education Development Center and project investigator Leigh Peake of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Eric Banilower of Horizon Research and Robert Winglee from the University of Washington, and Martin Storksdiek of Oregon State University and Rachel Connolly from WGBH. In order to augment committee expertise on critical issues, the committee heard testimony from Carol O’Donnell of the Smithsonian Institution, who discussed efforts to leverage federal-level funds through local partnerships. In order to center conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, both Louis Gomez of the University of California, Los Angeles and Julie Johnson of the National Science Foundation offered testimony on best practices and consideration for prioritizing equity in network models.
Finally, the committee reviewed SciAct documentation for evidence of the portfolio’s design and implementation. These documents included
SciAct’s promotional and communication materials, as well as internal documents that describe how the work of awardees is intended to meet specific SciAct objectives. The committee extensively reviewed the CAN, as well as each of the awardees’ project summaries, ongoing monitoring data, and evaluation reports. The committee also reviewed the SMD E/PO Website in an effort to better understand the support resources available to awardees, as well as the cadence and tenor of awardees’ online interactions across projects. The committee also reviewed the agendas and briefing documents associated with the last few years of SciAct’s annual principal investigator meetings so as to understand the nature of those week-long events. Where appropriate, the committee will describe these documents and their contents in greater depth later in this report.
As noted, this report varies from traditional National Academies’ consensus studies in that the charge to the committee did not call for a large synthesis of disparate bodies of literature. Instead, the committee was asked to rely on its collective expertise to assess the current SciAct portfolio of an education program in a federal agency, a task that required deep expertise in content areas ranging from federal education policy to STEM engagement and learning to the inner workings and functionality of NASA itself. In assessing the portfolio, the committee took care to conduct a full review of all the documents and artifacts described above. When reaching conclusions and developing recommendations, the committee drew on multiple streams of evidence: Wherever possible, the committee considered oral testimony in conjunction with documents or artifacts in order to make a claim. Where oral testimony alone was used as the basis of a finding, the committee collaborated to ensure collective agreement on how the evidence was interpreted; that is, one individual’s recollection was not sufficient evidence to support a claim. More specifically, the committee took particular care to not offer judgment where evidence was not adequate: In these cases, the committee attempted instead to identify or outline issues and considerations for SciAct to take into account when planning for the future without recommending a specific course of action. As a result of these deliberate processes, all conclusions and recommendations outlined in this report reflect the full consensus judgment of the Committee to Assess Science Activation.
Throughout these deliberative processes, committee members were asked to formulate assessments of the existing portfolio (as well as suggestions for the future) by applying their understanding of the best available research evidence and the current state of their respective fields. Given the nature of the charge, it was not feasible for the committee to do an extensive review of all of the research that is relevant to STEM education. For this reason, the report does not provide detailed descriptions of individual studies. Instead, the committee relied on broadly accepted theoretical approaches that are based on large bodies of research across multiple fields
that examine learning and teaching. Much of this research is summarized in previous reports from the National Academies. This body of National Academies work includes two reports that examine research on learning, drawing from cognitive science, the learning sciences, developmental psychology, social psychology, cultural psychology, educational psychology, sociology, and anthropology: How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (NRC, 2000) and How People Learn II: Culture, Contexts, and Cultures (NASEM, 2018a). It also includes major consensus studies that reviewed evidence on effective approaches to STEM education: America’s Lab Report (NRC, 2006), Taking Science to School (NRC, 2007), Learning Science in Informal Environments (NRC, 2009), STEM Integration in K–12 Education (National Academy of Engineering and NRC, 2014), Science and Engineering in Grades 6–12 (NASEM, 2019), and Learning through Citizen Science (NASEM, 2018b). The committee notes that these literatures are expanding: As SciAct makes decisions about how to plan for the future, it is critical to note that, as with any science, findings that emerge from the best available and most current evidentiary bases will shift with time.
The committee expects that this report will be of interest to several audiences. First and most immediately, the committee hopes that this report will serve the needs of NASA SMD and the SciAct community so that leadership can assess and plan for the future. Second, we expect this report will be of interest to other NASA personnel and other stakeholders invested in NASA’s work in STEM education and engagement. We also expect that this report could serve as a useful template for other federal agencies with their own investments in STEM education and engagement. Finally, this report is intended to be accessible to the taxpaying public: To the extent that NASA is publicly funded, it has an obligation to serve the interests of the American people. This report is an attempt to help SciAct meet that potential.
This report is organized into six chapters, with three appendixes. Chapter 2 describes the committee’s understanding of the vision and objectives of SciAct, detailing how it operationalizes its overarching goals and assessing how the portfolio is poised to address those goals. Chapter 3 characterizes the current portfolio, describing the logic undergirding the current organization of the awards and describing the breadth of SciAct programming. Chapter 4 presents our assessment of the SciAct portfolio according to key themes that connect to the overarching program goals and reflects most of the activities across the constituent projects, beginning with a discussion of STEM learning and leveraging NASA assets in the portfolio. Particular attention is paid to how these features currently function in the Phase 1 portfolio and considerations for future planning
based on the research literature. Chapter 5 continues our assessment of key themes by focusing on broadening participation and collective learning within the portfolio. In Chapter 6, we conclude the report with a set of recommendations for SciAct based on the committee’s expertise. Given the conclusions drawn by the committee over the course of this report, the committee is confident that careful consideration and implementation of these recommendations can help SciAct continue its good work into the future. Appendix A provides individual descriptions of each of the 24 SciAct awards. Appendix B contains biographical sketches of committee members and staff. Appendix C includes the PowerPoint slides used by Kristen Erickson in her presentation to the committee and are available on The National Academies Press Webpage at http://www.nap.edu/25569.