Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Growth of Space-based STEM for Kids in Canada

          By Glen Strom

Affordable and available. Nothing is widely adopted without meeting those two requirements. Affordability and availability also matter in promoting space-based science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Here are a few examples of recent initiatives in that area, an overview of current Canadian concerns related to STEM education plus a list of public and private resources available for those looking to learn more.

STEM programs have been around for decades; astronomy, rocketry, and other space-related activities have been part of it. Getting a student project into space, though, was never easy due to the expense and the limited number of launches available.

But with the introduction of inexpensive micro-satellites, a growing commercial launch market, interest in space-based STEM from tech companies, and crowd-funding campaigns, even elementary school students can get their projects into low Earth orbit.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield displays the seeds he will return to Earth as his contribution to the Tomatosphere™ program in 2012.  As outlined on the program website, "over the past 13 years, Tomatosphere™ has evolved into a regular component of the science curriculum engaging well over 3 million students across Canada and the United States. In 2014, over 17,800 classes participated in the award-winning program." Under the program, students investigate the effects of the space environment on the growth of food. Photo c/o CSA. 

For example, as outlined in the January 5th, 2015 Globe and Mail article “B.C. students’ space project set for liftoff once more,” four boys from McGowan Park Elementary School in Kamloops, BC recently won a NASA-supported contest to have their experiment flown to the International Space Station (ISS). The experiment was to see how a zero-gravity environment affected the growth of crystals.

The boys ran into some trouble along the way. As outlined in the October 28th, 2014 "NASA Statement Regarding Oct. 28 Orbital Sciences Corp. Launch Mishap," the Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that carried their experiment exploded during its launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. But they got another chance to launch, this time successfully, on a SpaceX flight to the ISS on January 10, 2015. They've also learned—the hard way—why people say space is hard.

A second example was described in the September 22nd, 2012 Winnipeg Free Press article “From Interlake to space for winning science project,” which discussed a group of grade five and six students from five schools, located about 25 km north of Winnipeg and their participation in a context to design an experiment to perform on-board the ISS. As outlined in the November 8th, 2013 CBC News article, "Interlake students' cancer experiment blasts into outer space," it was the first time NASA had accepted an elementary school level experiment from Canada.

A third example, as outlined in the March 10th, 2015 Canadian Space Society post "University of Toronto Schools Accepted into SSEP," was the recent acceptance of the University of Toronto Schools (UTS) into the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). The program is “A model U.S. national STEM education initiative for Grades 5-16 to inspire the next generation of America’s scientists and engineers.” The Grade 9 students from UTS will have a microgravity experiment flown to the ISS.

What makes this story different is the students had to raise $11,500 on their own. They ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised the entire amount, guaranteeing their participation in the project.

Bloomfield Elementary School teacher Jeff Wilson carefully preparing one of the 90 rockets made by his students. As outlined in the June 11th, 2014 PEI article, "Bloomfield Elementary School teacher inspires successful Space Academy program," approximately 87 students from kindergarten to grade eight built and launched their own small rockets as part of NASA's Beginning Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST) program last spring. The BEST program teaches kids about rocketry, robotics, computer programming, and the engineering design process. Photo c/o PEI

Two more points worth noting—more companies are supporting student space-based STEM projects, and some projects are international.

A February 26, 2015, posting at Canadensys Aerospace’s website called “Canadian School Joins World’s First Elementary School Space Mission,” talked about Bolton, Ontario based Canadensys Aerospace teaming up with St. John Paul II Catholic School, also in Bolton, for an international space project.

The school will provide a remote mission operations center (RMOC) for a satellite built by an elementary school in the United States. The entire student body at the Bolton, Ontario, school will participate in the project.

Here's a second example. As outlined in the January 16th, 2015 Stockhouse post, "Union Gas Supports FIRST Robotics Canada with $50,000 Grant, " Chatham, Ontario based Union Gas Ltd. will will help fund eight Ontario school teams competing in the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, an event where high school students team up with technology companies to build robots in high-intensity "robo-sports" competitions with the help of volunteer professional mentors.

This is the third year in which Union Gas has contributed to the competition.

The real reason why a STEM education is important. A substantial minority of the existing supply of engineers and STEM professionals are nearing retirement age and will eventually need to be replaced. This is particularly true of people in the space industry. As outlined in the February 12th, 2013 article, "Dean Kamen: Society Needs More Engineers," the average age of the engineers in the Apollo program in the 1960’s was in their 20’s but now "the average age of aerospace engineers is in their 50’s. These people will soon retire, taking with them an enormous brain trust that has been a foundation of American industrial success." Graphic c/o September 12th, 2014 Fortune article on "The Most In-Demand (And Aging) Engineering Jobs."

The Problems Facing STEM Education in Canada

As inspiring as these stories might be, there are too few of them. According to a July 26th, 2013, article, “Weird science: STEM fields face image problem in K-to-12 schools,” STEM education in general is lagging in Canada.

Data from a 2011 National Household Survey at the Statistics Canada website shows that STEM graduates make up only 18.6% of post-secondary graduates.

The Conference Board of Canada’s website shows that Canada ranks 12th out of 16th in a 2011 study of peer countries that produce STEM graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineering.

Canada also needs to do more to achieve gender balance in STEM. The December 18th, 2013 Statistics Canada document “Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university,” concluded that more work is needed to achieve a better gender balance in STEM careers.
Over the past few decades, women have made significant advances in university participation, including program areas that had previously been more populated by men. One area, however, remains male-dominated: science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) degrees. And among women who choose to pursue a degree in STEM, most do so in biology or science programs, resulting in even fewer women in engineering, computer science and mathematics programs. These choices have consequences, as fields of study such as engineering and computer science lead, on average, to better outcomes in the labour market in terms of employment, job match and earnings. 
For some, aptitude for a particular subject is a factor in university program choice. Although mathematical ability plays a role, it does not explain gender differences in STEM choices. Young women with a high level of mathematical ability are significantly less likely to enter STEM fields than young men, even young men with a lower level of mathematical ability. This suggests that the gender gap in STEM-related programs is due to other factors. Other possible explanations might include differences in labour market expectations including family and work balance, differences in motivation and interest, and other influences.
As space resources become more affordable and available, the number of children who benefit from space-based STEM projects will likely multiply.

Another reason why a STEM education is important. The demand for expertise in this area is growing faster than the demand for other job skills. Graphic c/o US Department of  Education

But as the statistics show for STEM in general, Canada still has a way to go before we can confidently say that the next generation will be ready to meet the challenges of the future.

National Organizations and Government Resources in Canada aimed at STEM Education for Younger Children

Actua - Actua’s beginnings go back to 1988 with a student-run science and engineering camp at Queen’s University. The idea spread to other universities, and Actua was formed in 1993 with funding from Industry Canada. Funding now comes from public and private organizations.

Actua specializes in programs at day camps, workshops, clubs, and community outreach programs for aboriginal children, girls, and underprivileged children.

They do this in one of two ways, through a membership of 32 Canadian universities and colleges, and with their own team of outreach instructors who travel to different parts of Canada, including remote areas. According to the statistics on their website, they connect with 225,000 kids from ages 6 to 16 in 450 to 500 communities across Canada each year.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) - The CSA has an educators resource page featuring astronomy and space-based information and projects for elementary and secondary students.

The Federal Department of Science and Technology (Federal S&T) - The government of Canada has links to STEM resources for kindergarten and elementary schools on their web page.

These resources come from other government agencies like Environment Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture Museum, and more.

Let’s Talk Science - Founded in 1993 by Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, Let’s Talk Science is a national, charitable organization headquartered in London, Ontario. They focus on training volunteers to teach science to kids in an entertaining, effective way.

According to the programs page on their website, Let’s Talk Science offers “...a full suite of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for Kindergarten to Grade 12 educators, including hands-on STEM classroom outreach, online chat forums, program planning resources, action projects and professional learning opportunities.”

Let’s Talk Science partners with 41 colleges and universities across Canada. The colleges and universities act as the contact points for the organization’s main program, Let’s Talk Science Outreach. They help train and place volunteers, as well as set up the program for elementary schools, high schools, libraries, and community organizations.

The organization has also done 20 research studies on science education. Funding comes from public and private organizations, and through individual donations.

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) - NSERC has 2 programs.

The NSERC Promo Science Program grants up to $2.75Mln CDN in funding each year to organizations that provide a hands-on learning experience for kids in STEM education.

Glen Strom
The NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering Program (CWSE) aims to get more women currently in science and engineering to act as role models for women who are either active in a STEM career or are considering a career in a STEM field. The 5 Chairs represent regions in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie provinces, and British Columbia/Yukon.

Glen Strom is a freelance writer and editor with a background in business and technical writing. He's also the editor of The Gazette Weekly, the newsletter of the Canadian Space Society.

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