Star Teachers

Over the past 15 years, I have become a bit of a space fanatic. I’ll delve into most anything space-related, and practically every vacation I can recall has involved something launching. But it’s the early days of the space program that often captures my imagination. I am fascinated with the era itself, framing the program against a turbulent backdrop of change, and have an ardent passion for studying the people who were called to this “great adventure on an ultimate frontier.” (Walsh, 2000) These early pioneers joined a space program that was “a program inventing itself,” stepping into jobs that had never been done. (Kranz) And changing our world forever.

While they didn’t literally “make it up” – the space program was built on existing science, engineering, math and early technology – at every turn, the program had to take the existing knowledge base and innovate; new technology, new math, new systems (and systems to manage those systems) new materials…you get the idea.

The most amazing thing to me is, the people who did all of that invention and design did it largely from scratch. They leveraged their most important bona fides – their “learner credential”- and took us to the moon. And just under 30 years later, launched the International Space Station.

The very best teachers approach their craft from the belief that educating someone is comprised of far more than the measure of the information they have memorized.  These teachers expect their students to be effective learners and thinkers. This approach has never been more urgent, or correct. Globalization, the exponential growth of information and the nearly constant introduction of new technology has made the landscape of work and career one of rapid, perpetual change.

In his book Creating Innovators. The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner posits that “Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today.”

Obviously, the pioneers of the space program possessed this skill – in abundance.  Despite eventual career experiences that could not have been imagined during their formative years in the classroom, they used what they did know, combined it with creativity, agility, adaptability and well, just the hard work of deep thinking , and created an entirely new knowledge base.

My work is about how.

I want to know how some of our nation’s finest thinkers, innovators and leaders were nurtured to succeed in the unknown.

What kind of a teacher creates an astronaut when no such career exists?

What professor develops an engineer who builds a car that must be road-worthy on a planet he or she has never visited?

What educational experiences lead to the achievements of the Space Shuttle Program, the scientific exploration of Sky Lab and the building of the International Space Station?