March/April 1997 Table of Contents
Shaker High School
once idealistic and jaded, today's young people are fascinated with
space, but unconvinced that science and exploration deserve money
when the nation faces a multitude of social woes. Scientists and
enthusiasts are going to have to address those reservations head
24, 1995. I sat on a sofa cushion in the small gym and listened
to Don McCarthy of the University of Arizona speak about NASA's
new mission to search for extrasolar planets and life. It was my
first day at the university's Astronomy Camp, and I was immediately
captured by both the passion that radiated from this man and the
implications of the search if it were successful. McCarthy concluded
with an image: that of Earth from space. He explained that children
were being raised with this image, the view like a swirling blue,
green, and white marble. He invited us to ponder how this new perspective
could change society.
image of Earth from space symbolizes how science has progressed
and revolutionized our world. Children today are constantly being
told that technology is the career path of the future. It is the
age of the gigahertz, in which information flows rapidly and the
world is united by cables, TVs, and computers. Technology has shaped
work and leisure and provided new, higher standards of excellence.
Being raised in this informational surge has taught us young people
to take efficiency and scientific breakthroughs for granted. We
cannot imagine a world without our precious modern advancements.
believe that my generation is one of transition, but to what? Students
today are caught in a crescendoing battle between the benefits of
technology and the dehumanization of our world. My generation craves
money, cars, and cellphones with picnics and evenings by the fireplace.
We embrace the efficiency of the computer but grow restless from
the dull glow of the screen. We delight in the practicality of answering
machines but dislike the coldness of recorded telephone services.
My generation is a group of goal-oriented romantics: hippies marred
with a drive for fame and success. We are conglomeration of materialistic,
contrast of our goals and desires extends to our view of the space
program. Students today are the children of the blue marble. The view
of Earth from space is ingrained in our minds, branding a reminder
that space flight is possible. But as with technology, our appreciation
for space exploration has dimmed with familiarity. My generation has
been raised knowing that America reached the Moon; the Challenger
accident is a dim or nonexistent memory. Unlike our parents, we see
human space flight as ordinary, not miraculous.
At the same time, students today are frustrated
by the debt left by older generations. This burden has conditioned
us to shun organizations apart from those that have produced tangible
improvements to our lives or are considered politically correct.
For most young people, NASA falls into neither category. Its benefits
are often unrecognized. The medical, material, and other technological
advancements, let alone the science, are overshadowed by negative
impressions and financial worries.
And yet, though young people criticize NASA's funding
and remain oblivious to its activities, we do possess a natural
inquisitiveness and curiosity. As dreamers and visionaries, we are
attracted to the elusive and the mysterious. Bookstores cater to
our interest in pseudoscience, astrology, and mysticism with shelves
dedicated to horoscopes, ESP, and miracle cures. Like the frontier
in 19th-century America, space offers excitement and promise. Our
interests in fantasy, combined with those in science and technology,
naturally incline us to space.
But are these interests strong enough to overcome
the reservations? Are we adequately informed when we make judgments
of NASA programs? Indeed, are these generalizations about my generation
To probe these questions, I undertook a short survey
of students at my school, Shaker High School, in the North Colonie
Central School District near Albany, N.Y. English classes, selected
randomly from the 11th- and 12th-grades, completed the questionnaire.
Two hundred eighty-seven students participated in all. Their responses
reflect the attitudes of young people in a predominantly white,
urban community of about 33,000, where the average household income
was $43,000 in 1990 (putting incomes in the second quartile
nationally) and only 4 percent of citizens had incomes below the
section of the survey probed the students' raw interest in astronomy
and space-related topics. As predicted, respondents stated that they
were inclined to read science fiction and watch shows such as The
X Files, Sightings, and Star Trek. Fifty-seven percent
indicated that they read sci fi; 15 percent said it occupied half
or more of their reading time. Two-thirds indicated that they watched
space-focused shows. These local results agree with national, and
indeed international, trends. The X Files is among the most
popular shows on television; last year, Nielsen found that 17 percent
of American viewers tuned in to the show during its old Friday-night
it came to documentaries, these numbers decreased. A third of the
respondents indicated that they watched programs such as Cosmos
and Nova. The same fraction said they read newspaper articles,
magazines, and books on astronomy. Additionally, 56 percent of the
students agreed that they wished to learn more about astronomy and
space in school. These results support my hypothesis that students
today possess a genuine interest in space, and especially in the
media that cater to space fantasy.
second section of the survey consisted of seven multiple-choice
questions on space-related science: day and night, seasons, phases
of the Moon, relative sizes of the planets, stars, the Milky Way
galaxy, comets. This information is taught in science classes at
Shaker. The average score was 4.2 out of 7. Students had the most
difficulty with the questions involving comets, the phases, and
level of knowledge is respectable considering that the respondents
included students who both liked and disliked the subject matter.
I fear, however, that if the questionnaire were administered nationally,
the average score would be much lower. The average SAT score for
Shaker seniors is almost 100 points above the national average,
and 70 percent earn a New York State Regents Diploma, compared to
40 percent statewide.
third section of the questionnaire consisted of 11 questions on
prominent space and astronomy news events of the past two years.
Ten true-false statements tested whether students knew about such
topics as comet Hyakutake, the martian meteorite, Galileo,
the fate of the Russian Mars '96 spacecraft, and the discovery
of new planets. The 11th question asked how many space-shuttle missions
were completed in 1996. The students were not required to know the
exact number, only that it was greater than seven. The average score
for these current-events questions was 6.2 out of 11, higher than
the 5.3 expected from pure chance.
section of the questionnaire focused on NASA's funding. Only a third
indicated that the U.S. government spends just 1 percent of its budget
on NASA. The other three choices were 10 percent, 25 percent, and
40 or more percent all extremely inflated answers (see figure
1 on p. 14).
29 percent of the students said they wished to increase NASA's funding.
Thirty-four percent were willing to raise their taxes by $25
to support NASA, whereas 64 percent were not. When asked to prioritize
funding for AIDS and cancer research, the military and national
defense, poverty and homelessness, education, and NASA, the respondents
ranked the space program last, with 46 percent agreeing that it
should be the lowest priority.
when asked simply for "support," rather than cash, the students
delivered. Sixty-five percent supported NASA's new mission to search
for life and Earth-like planets. These figures indicate that despite
the students' profession of interest in space, they did not have
the type of commitment that ultimately matters: financial.
most interesting results of this survey, however, were the correlations
among the various questions. Of the respondents who had the correct
estimate of NASA's budget, 42 percent wished to increase it, while
only 9 percent wanted to decrease it and 2 percent to drop funding
altogether (see figure 2 on p. 14). Willingness to pay decreased
dramatically with delusion over the size of the budget (see figure
3 on p. 14). This suggests that NASA might gain support by publicizing
its budget more effectively. On the other hand, of those who said
they wished to increase funding, only half were actually willing
to raise their taxes by $25.
also looked for a correlation between the students' knowledge and
the priority they gave to NASA out of the five government functions.
There was none. The priority did not vary significantly with the
respondents' ability to answer either the space-science or the current-events
questions correctly. This suggests that students apply a uniform
set of principles when they rationalize the finances of government
programs. They are commonly committed to solving other national
problems before giving money to space exploration.
was there much of a connection between space-science knowledge and
opinions on NASA's funding. The supporters of an augmented budget
were somewhat more numerous among those who got five or more of
the seven questions right (the bars labeled "good" and "excellent"
in figure 4 on p. 14). Interestingly, those with the least knowledge
showed a similar degree of support. It was the groups in the middle
those who answered three or four questions correctly
which were the least supportive of increased funding to the space
correlation, however, was quite weak. So, too, was the correlation
between space-science knowledge and willingness to contribute 25
tax dollars (see figure 7 on p. 14). The support for planet-hunting
did increase with space-science knowledge (see figure 6 on p. 14).
correlation between current-events knowledge and opinion on funding
was even less pronounced; all groups were similarly inclined about
increasing NASA's budget (see figure 5 on p. 14). Any correlations
here, however, may have been hidden by the true-false format, which
increased the likelihood that respondents could guess their way
to a high score.
respondents tended to be more supportive of NASA when they were better
informed about astronomy, those who wished to increase NASA's funding
were all minorities within their knowledge group. The knowledge most
likely to change their minds was not astronomical knowledge, but a
more realistic assessment of the federal budget. Ironically, NASA's
massive public-relations effort may be counterproductive, increasing
people's awareness of space but undermining their support by giving
them the impression that the space agency spends far more than it
the comment box on the survey form, many respondents reiterated
their concern for solving problems on Earth first. "I think NASA's
program is very good, and I think that discovering new planets and
life is important," wrote one. "But I also think that there are
more important things that tax money should go to, like education
and Cancer Research."
wrote, "Life here on Earth deserves our attention and our money
much more than life light-years away, wouldn't you agree? The funding
for NASA could feed countless poverty-stricken children in this
students used the comment box to criticize NASA's activities: "NASA
doesn't affect our lives. They don't contribute really anything
but facts about the solar system. I can learn that in school. I
wouldn't give them any money." And: "I'd be more willing to give
money to NASA if I heard more results and discoveries coming from
comments again exemplify how NASA must improve its effort to reach
people with its missions and research. Overall, the survey indicated
that young people do have an interest in space exploration, but
are critical about the size of NASA's budget. They are somewhat
more willing to support the agency, morally and materially, when
they are knowledgeable. Although I would have to conduct a rigorous,
nationwide survey to assess these tentative conclusions, these results
do support the characterization of my generation as materialistic
visionaries. NASA, and science in general, could capitalize on their
I believe that education is the key to dissolving my generation's
financial skepticism into support, a better-informed public could
also end up disapproving of NASA. We need insightful opinions to
both promote and reform the space program. As with democracy, the
health of the nation is best preserved when voters are knowledgeable.
opportunities both inside and outside the classroom should be made
available to cater to students' demonstrated affinity for the unknown.
Although a national space curriculum would surely help, individuals
can take strides to spread their own passion for astronomy to others.
are many ways to get involved at all levels of commitment. The most
dedicated people, such as McCarthy, have established camps to provide
students with a taste of professional astronomy. Securely financed
institutions, such as the Dudley Observatory in upstate New York,
the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the University
of Arizona Alumni Association, provide scholarships to programs
such as Astronomy Camp and the U.S. Space Camp, which encourage
students already interested in space to seriously consider careers
in science. As a former camper in both programs, I can attest to
the power of first-hand experience and exciting learning.
You Tell Two People...
most people, classroom teaching is the most efficient and practical
means to spread scientific knowledge. For someone who is well-educated
in astronomy, workshops take minimal time to prepare and are generally
well received by students. I have personally found that a focus on
elementary students is especially rewarding (see box on p. 15). The
interest and energy that these young students emanate amazes me, as
an only child immersed in high school.
challenge with any presentation is to make it active and fun. Colored
transparencies, photos, and student participation are assets when
you are attempting to stimulate supple minds. The enjoyable presentations
are the ones that children remember. For individuals with telescopes,
observing sessions at local schools are fabulous introductions to
astronomy. Organizing these events through science classes ensures
students' participation. Many students uninterested in science will
find they are pleasantly surprised with their first telescope experience.
especially important topic for teaching is the actual work of the
space program. As demonstrated by my survey, many students are unaware
of the expenditures, research, and practical applications of NASA.
At my elementary-school teaching session last October, I grasped
the opportunity to introduce students to the government budget and
its relationship with NASA.
children were confused when I sat them down to write a proposal
for an imaginary, $1 million grant they had just spent
an hour and a half talking about life in outer space and did not
see a connection. I promised them that I would link the two topics
before the close of our session.
20 minutes of group discussion, I brought the kids together in a
large circle and they presented their proposals. Students explained
their first priority for funding and the reason they selected it.
I concluded the program by explaining that, with increasingly tight
government budgets, it was becoming the individual's responsibility
to campaign for causes that he or she valued.
I said I respected that NASA was not everyone's first priority,
I emphasized that the space program was especially precarious and
in need of public support. I told the children that this was why
I was there teaching: to enlarge the cadre of educated space enthusiasts.
The intent faces indicated to me that I had made an impression.
It was a both a selfish and charitable act. I had given the children
a piece of my passion and asked them to be accountable for it.
I believe that the beauty of Earth from space, the view of the blue
marble, is growing stale with familiarity. But there is now another
image that I hope my generation will learn to associate with. It
is of a shuttle, viewed from space (see photo on p. 12).
strikes me about this photo is the fragility of the flight. The
orbiter resembles a white bird in the midst of blackness. The stark
contrast of the vessel with the black space and brilliant blue oceans
below is both abhorrent and thrillingly beautiful. The shuttle's
mechanical crudeness seems to symbolize that we were not meant to
fly; yet we do. We have succeeded in moving against our very nature,
escaping the gravity which binds us to this Earth.
Challenger, the shuttle in this image, later found out, space
flight has not been a path lined solely with rewards. Humanity has
struggled to reach the level of mobility it possesses today. I hope
my generation, the dreamers, will appreciate the hope and beauty
of space as well as feel a humanistic pride in our ability to study
it. I hope that society incorporates the view of Earth, looking
inward, with that of Challenger, looking outward to the heavens.
is a senior at Shaker High School in Latham, N.Y. and a part-time
student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. She received
the "Most Promising Young Astronomer" award at the 1995 Advanced
Astronomy Camp on Mount Lemmon, Ariz. To attend the camp, she won
a scholarship from Dudley Observatory in Schenectady, N.Y. Her email
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
more information on Astronomy Camp, read her article, "I Hope That
I Could Come," July/August 1996, p. 23.
Shaker High School
believe that high-school students are ideal teachers for elementary
students. Young children both respect and relate to students in
high school. This relationship allows for an excellent exchange
are some practical guidelines for students interested in teaching:
Call your old elementary school. Your former teachers will probably
be more than happy to have you return.
Plan ahead. Make your lesson plan longer than needed so that you
do not run out of ideas.
Make activities short but linked. Children have very short attention
spans and do not want to listen to long lectures. Alternating
discussion with hands-on activities can be highly successful.
Bring visuals. Remember, most kids probably have not seen the
neat photos from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Speak on their level. Define new terms in simple language.
Be animated. In case you forgot, kids like being entertained.
Bring name tags for the children. Name tags allow you to call
on students personally and reign them into the topics. If you
have time in the beginning of class (and a good memory), learn
everyone's names. The students will love the personalized attention.
Have the kids call you by your first name.
Dress up. Although a first-name basis is good, jeans are not.
The authority of clothes can be an asset if you lose control of
the class (although the teacher should always be there to handle
discipline). It also demonstrates to the teachers that you respect
Make a packet for the children to keep when you leave. Additional
information will be welcomed by the kids who were inspired by
your presentation. Others will use it in school projects. Parents
might also have the opportunity to read the material and discuss
it with their children.
Have fun! They aren't going to enjoy it unless you do.