NASA needs Astronauts.
Almost a decade ago the US Space Shuttle programme housed 149 trained astronauts, but now only 60 remain, with many of them nearing retirement age. But to retain a position on the International Space Station, NASA needs to hire new astronauts immediately.
A report by a NASA committee, compiled of retired astronauts and field experts, last week concluded: “The currently projected minimum staffing target size for the active astronaut corps poses a risk to the US investment in human spaceflight capabilities."
The number of applicants for NASA programmes has steadily increased over the years; however, the number of candidates has significantly dropped.
There can only be one reason for this: education.
NASA's programme is among the most competitive, only accepting those with impressive educational backgrounds who medically qualify for the rigorous training and risky spaceflights. Former astronauts include scientists, engineers, and doctors who have held multiple degrees each from various top universities.
From the thousands that apply every year, only a very small percentage qualifies to even be considered. In 2009, out of 3500 applicants, only 9 were selected as serious candidates for the training programme. Therefore, it can be argued that schools are no longer producing ‘serious candidates’.
Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, also criticised the British education system, alleging that students are not getting equal access to science/engineering and art in schools. Schmidt argued that students are being grouped into two separate classes of graduates – those with a gift for science and mathematics, and those who excel in the liberal arts. Schools are not generating graduates with skills for both. During his candid lecture, Schmidt referenced James Clerk Maxwell who was both a poet and a physicist.
The state of education in Britain and the United States has declined to such a degree that many argue students are not getting access to a quality education. And when comparing performance scores with other countries, Britain and the United States barely make it to the top 15. A recent study published by The Broad Foundation showed 1.2 million students drop out before finishing high school in the US, and by the end of 8th grade US students are two years behind their international peers in mathematics, and never catch up.
However, these statistics are not new.
According to the National Centre for Education Statistics, between 2007 and 2009 Britain and the US ranked behind Russia, China, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Finland, and Singapore in mathematics and science literacy.
So, why is our education system failing its students?
Many factors could have contributed to this slow decline over the years. One major reason could be money. All of the top five performing countries, including Switzerland and Japan, offer their teachers and professors a substantially higher salary than in the UK or US. Japan pays their educators the same yearly wage as lawyers and doctors.
Some states in the US have tested this theory, including Michigan, who increased salaries for newly qualified teachers. Michigan school districts reported to Education Week that their schools were attracting candidates from more prestigious educational backgrounds, including Harvard and Yale graduates, by simply offering a higher salary.
Another reason could be the rising cost of a university education. Increased tuition fees and reports that show a Bachelor’s degree does not necessarily mean better job opportunities, are putting off potential applicants. While universities in Britain continue to battle the increasing fees, universities in the US cost approximately $35,000 per year.
Access and accountability are also contributing factors. Many schools do not provide students with adequate access to science, technology, mathematics, engineering, and computer programming. In addition, schools are not being held accountable for low performance scores and for the content in their curriculums.
With the rise of East Asia and its dominance of the science and technology markets, Britain and America are undoubtedly falling behind their international counterparts. Far behind.
China, Korea, and Japan are consistently out-performing their competitors and are producing more successful school graduates than any other country. China is now on its way on being the number one English-speaking country in the world. Britain and the US need to rise up to the standards being set by higher performing countries.
Disregarding the economic climate, never have there been so many resources and opportunities to thrive in Western civilisations. Technological advancements and groundbreaking scientific research are within reach.
A recent study looking at the progression of education and information in Western societies, reported that an average newspaper had more information than what someone in the 18th century would have been exposed to during their entire life. The top ten most-popular jobs that school graduates applied for in 2010 did not even exist in 2004.
Facts like these generate a lot of questions. If we are living in exponential times as claimed by these studies, then why is there such a discrepancy in exam scores across countries? Why are our schools no longer producing NASA-worthy graduates?
NASA's Search for the Educated
A lack of suitable NASA astronaut candidates highlights a worrying problem with Western education
by Natalia Gomes (13 September 2011)