One chilly early October night back in 1962, I set up my new Tasco telescope to view the waxing moon.
I had watched a total eclipse in 1959 and was hooked. Everyone could see the Tycho Crater, a direct hit of a cosmic cream pie, with the naked eye but I wanted more; I wanted to be an astronomer.
In 7th grade I made a theodolite for our school science fair out of yardsticks and protractors to measure the movements of the planets over the seasons. My little device made it all the way to the state science fair and got a blue ribbon. I was going to be an astronomer!
On the 16th of July 1969, I sat transfixed in front of our black and white RCA set, watching a Saturn V lift off sending the Apollo 11 crew to the moon. Four days later Neil Armstrong stepped onto Mare Tranquillitatis. I now knew I was really going to be an astronaut and an astronomer!
One small problem: I was math challenged. Because our family had moved from Detroit at Christmastime during my third grade, I started at a new suburban school midyear and missed the multiplication tables entirely. I’ve been counting on my fingers ever since. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I didn’t have the math skills to be an astronomer.
Americans were shocked when the Russians put the Sputnik satellite into space in 1957. We responded with a colossal, urgent push to upgrade math and science education. That was then and this is now. And the problem is no less urgent.
U.S. student achievement in mathematics and science is lagging behind students in much of Asia and Europe. In an international exam given recently to 15 year olds, U.S. high school students ranked significantly behind 12 industrialized nations in science and 17 in math.
The ACT College and Career Readiness report found only 29% of the tested graduates were considered college-ready in science and 43% college-ready in math.
To answer this, there is now a national push towards investing in education, centering on the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). It is these subjects that, officials say, need to be stressed in public schools to drive the future of the United States economy. That’s true, but at Literacyworks we think we also need to include the arts in that equation, so we’ve launched what we’re calling the STEAMworks initiative.
STEAMworks will strive to increase student achievement and interest in mathematics and science in underrepresented groups by providing after-school programs that support learning in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art and math. We will align the activities with the core curriculum being studied concurrently in the local school systems. The programs will be constructed to make these lessons fun, hands-on, and accessible to all learners. Each year participants will work on a final project that they will present to the community to share what they’ve learned and how it has affected them. There will also be a focus on bringing women in the workforce to the program for a monthly talk. This aspect will allow participants to see what careers are available in the fields we are studying while also garnering support from the local community.
One of our advisors, Dr. Jill Tarter of SETI, encouraged us to catch young kids early so we are focusing on 4 th grade through 6th grade students. The STEAMworks program strives to close the achievement gap between high and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and nonminority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.
I can only wonder what might have happened if there were such a program to encourage me as a fourth grader, perhaps I would be an astronomer today.
is the Executive Director of Literacyworks and Publisher of Know Journal.