School children can learn about outer space from NASA astronaut Leland Melvin
Leland Melvin is an astronaut, athlete, scientist, author and STEM educator. He served as a head of NASA Education, White House STEM Task Force co-chair, and US representative on the International Space Education Board. At the moment, he is working on a graphic novel series featuring kids going to space, and is teaching a free class called “Becoming an Astronaut” on Varsity Tutors, an online learning platform.
Julia Brodsky: Do you see space exploration and space science as something that can unite us all as one human civilization?
Leland Melvin: I remember my first mission to ISS [the international space station]. Once we finished installing the Columbus Laboratory, Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of ISS, invited us over to dinner in the Russian segment of the station. And there we were, African American, Asian American, French, German, and Russian crew members, breaking bread while going around the planet every 90 minutes, knowing that if we don’t work together, we will perish together. And every kid, no matter what zip code they live in, can look up at the ISS right now and witness that collaboration. And don’t forget access and opportunity – Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12, had dyslexia, but it did not stop him from becoming the third person to walk on the Moon. Only if diverse people of various backgrounds and different talents work together will we be able to save our planet, inhabit Mars, and explore new worlds.
Brodsky: What is the best way to engage a child in science?
Melvin: We should engage them right where they are, in their communities and neighborhoods. And we have to be creative to help them see the connection between space, exploration, science, and their own life. William Adams (stage name will.i.am), an entertainer who wrote the song “Reach For The Stars” and beamed it to NASA Curiosity Rover, was raised in a poor quarter of Los Angeles. But the song he wrote is an encouragement to all kids to study science. We need to encourage our children to apply the power of science to help themselves and others.
Brodsky: At the end of March, the Planetary Society, the world’s largest and most influential non-profit space organization, is arranging online discussions between the general public and members of Congress. Would you encourage children to participate, too?
Melvin: Children are smarter than adults often give them credit for. And unlike us, they aren’t jaded yet. I call it Mission Possible. When you bring their level of enthusiasm and energy to Congresspeople, it is infectious. The “growth mindset” that Carol Dweck talks about is what we all need to develop and maintain.
Brodsky: Covid forced schools and families to switch to online education. But there are many ways to approach it. NASA has been utilizing high fidelity computer simulations and training games for decades, with great results. Do you think we should pay more attention to educational games?
Melvin: When I prepared to install the Columbus Lab, all I used to practice was a training video game. And when it was time to actually do it, the dynamics were just spot on. A child can play a simulator to learn how to land an airplane, or tinker with Kerbal Space Program to learn the basics of space systems engineering. Online gaming is critical when you deal with complex systems – besides learning about each individual part, you get familiar with their interconnections and feedback loops. They let you experiment with something that is not available at hand and help you learn how to work together as a team.
But the experiences in virtual and real spaces have to be balanced. If you don’t have an intuition about the physical world, you would not know how to turn a wrench. When kids are building with Legos or designing Martian racers during their Space Club lessons, they get a feel for 3D objects and their properties, which they cannot get from virtual reality. Children also need to learn how their body works in physical space. Being an athlete and having to jump up in the air, turning and spinning, using my sense of balance, really prepared me to feel comfortable in zero gravity. Physical touch and movement are essential for brain and body development, helping us adapt to any environment we end up in, including space stations and planetary outposts.
Brodsky: Your recent book is called Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances. How can we help our children to develop that grit?
Melvin: Angela Duckworth, a developmental psychologist who researches grit, says that resolve and resilience come from purpose and determination. And for children, it is extremely important to have someone in their life who won’t let them give up, someone who can help them see alternative paths. Okay, kid, so you have failed that class – no problem, let’s take it again. Keep going, you can do it. And if that takes you a bit longer, so be it. After all, it took Leland 10 years to go to space.
Brodsky: What brought you to headline the Space Club at Varsity Tutors?
Melvin: Most learning happens outside of school, so I consider informal education very important. I hope to inject some inspiration and enthusiasm. I want to send a message to the kids: “You can do this, we can get through it together!”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I am a STEM education researcher at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a former NASA astronaut instructor, independent school teacher, regional Math Olympiad