Colonization of distant planet

Life on Mars

We’ve all heard the stereotypical jokes about women in STEM, and particularly female engineers. There’s a long list of things that women are apparently bad at: technology, science, maths and driving, to name just a few. Never mind that the world owes much to female scientists and engineers in terms of innovation and progress. It was Lise Meitner, a physicist and chemist, who co-led the team that discovered nuclear fission; while she was never given formal credit, the element meitnerium is named in her honour. MIT astronomer Sara Seager has discovered a total of 715 exoplanets using the Kepler space telescope in her search to find another Earth-like planet, and biomedical engineer Nina Tandon is responsible for devising a way for the stem cells in a patient to be used for growing custom-fitted bone cells in under four weeks. Women have made significant scientific contributions to environmental care, too – Kristen Marhaver is a marine biologist researching coral reproduction and what juvenile corals need in order to survive today, which is time-sensitive work given the large-scale destruction of coral reefs around the world.


However, one female engineer in particular has proved her driving skills to be out of this world – quite literally. Vandi Verma is an accomplished roboticist and part of the team that designed and operates Curiosity, the Mars rover. Verma doesn’t just drive Curiosity; she also helped build it and wrote the operating codes that are used to run it. Her job is further complicated by the fact that she’s building machines on Earth that will operate on an entirely different planet. This means she has to take into account factors like different forces of gravity, varying atmospheric pressure and unfamiliar geographical terrain. Every calculation must therefore be precise; the machines require intelligent and careful programming, as remote repairs aren’t possible.


Verma’s job of creating a sturdy robot capable of withstanding Martian elements was a big mechanical challenge, as the rover is more than just a vehicle made for alien terrain; it’s also a mobile science laboratory. Mars has a very dusty environment and experiences extreme climates, cycling through blistering heat and sub-zero temperatures every day. The sturdy solar panels had to be designed in such as way that they wouldn’t become damaged by heat, radiation or Martian dust. The other delicate instruments on board also need to be protected against the dusty environment. Curiosity moves on metal wheels, rather than inflated tyres, to help it negotiate the pressure and temperature differences alongside the rocky terrain. As Curiosity is also essentially a laboratory on wheels, it is equipped with various instruments that help it collect samples and analyse its environment. These include X-ray diffraction instruments to determine the mineral composition in the soil, drills and a scoop to collect soil samples, and cameras (both coloured and black and white) to take photographs. Built-in equipment such as thermal sensors monitor the rover’s condition so that when it gets too cold, heaters can be activated to keep the rover from freezing over. Curiosity is also designed to be an intelligent robot – Verma controls where the robot is initially positioned and then switches Curiosity over to auto mode. The rover then records images of its environment and beams back the data to the team on Earth.


Verma also helped write the simulation software that operators use to map out the rover’s route for the following day. Every evening, Curiosity sends back important information along with its coordinates before it shuts down for the night. Verma and other operators then use this information to map out the following day’s route, covering a number of difficult manoeuvres over difficult terrain. This route is then beamed back to the rover, and another day of extra-terrestrial exploring ensues.


Verma’s journey to Mars began by driving a tractor in the fields of India. Today she is a strong role model for millions of young women all over the world who seek to pursue their STEM dreams, which shows the importance of encouragement. Who knows where the next Vandi Varma might be?

chalk drawing from children on the asphalt

How NGSS and STEM fit together

The urgency for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education was heralded by a workforce imperative and the need to supply an increasing demand for STEM jobs. This was followed by the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS was introduced at a time when concerns over science education were running high – the PISA scores had come out, painting a bleak picture of today’s students’ scientific understanding. This, set against the background of the urgent requirement for STEM professionals, brought into sharp focus the need for an overhaul in science education. But what does this mean for teachers? Is the NGSS just one more tick on an ever-growing checklist of educational and pedagogical demands? And where does it stand in relation to STEM?


Schools that use integrated STEM instruction focus on the integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at every level of school education, even including pre-kindergarten; NGSS, set firmly on the foundation of three-dimensional learning – scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas – looks at how best this instruction can be integrated and taught in the classroom. Teachers well-versed in these three dimensions might wonder about the concept of the NGSS science and engineering practices. There is clearly an overlap between the current instructions in place for teaching STEM subjects and the NGSS standards; does this mean that the NGSS standards are simply a loosely disguised update of the STEM standards? Not quite. NGSS and STEM both address the same urgency within science and science education, they just do it in slightly different ways. Think of integrated STEM instruction as a road map and the NGSS as a GPS. Both direct you to the same destination, except while one gives a general route, the other provides a more guided approach to finding your way, with the option of many alternate routes – whatever suits you most. The overlap only gives teachers more room for experimentation with lesson plans and curriculum activities.


The first step to understanding the NGSS-STEM correlation is to understand how each practice works. STEM education focuses primarily on fulfilling the STEM workforce demands. This means identifying and selecting students who show aptitude or interest in science, technology, engineering or maths, and helping them develop the necessary skills needed in these fields. A good STEM education focuses on problem-solving: identifying the source of a problem, exploring alternate solutions, and then designing and constructing the solution. It’s real-world science as real-world scientists experience it, designed to allow students to experience the satisfaction that comes with the successful implementation of a solution. NGSS takes a broader perspective, focusing on scientific inquiry, developing scientific curiosity and finding solutions. It aims to make science accessible and enjoyable for everyone. The NGSS learning outcomes were designed not just to prepare future scientists and engineers, but also to instill a scientific way of thinking in each and every citizen. It originates from the belief that a good science education provides the knowledge that allows us to think through the impact of our actions in different ways, providing every citizen with the knowledge and ability to affect the future in ways that are constructive and positive. A crucial part of accomplishing this objective is to simplify science education and make it accessible to everyone. One way of achieving this is to contextualize science as it is taught in the classroom within events and phenomena that happen in the real world, thus forging a strong understanding of the science. Children are encouraged to observe the real world around them, ask questions, draw possible conclusions and gather evidence to support or refute their theory. STEM instruction places priority on identifying and nurturing abilities addressed by science education; NGSS focuses on enhancing scientific literacy amongst all students.


The overlap between STEM and NGSS depends on how the two are implemented. While NGSS uses a broader approach to scientific education, many of the approaches can also include certain mandates of STEM education. Where it differs slightly is in focus: STEM education sets its sights firmly on developing solutions for the manmade world, while NGSS focuses on laws and processes of the natural world, how these laws affect the human world and how humanity affects Earth. For example, in studying insects and ants, NGSS would include an examination of their life processes and habitation, and their place in the ecological cycle, whereas STEM education, would concentrate on studying the ants’ behavior to attempt to replicate this knowledge to be used in medical or engineering practices. In order to understand the various maladies and ailments that can affect the human world, a study of how other species deal with them can be hugely helpful – for example, investigating how certain species of ants use bacteria to ward off harmful microbes, a method now being used by doctors to help humans overcome antibiotic resistance. Here, STEM education would need to learn from NGSS practices, which focus on the natural processes and how they interact with the human world.


Overall, STEM and NGSS complement one another with certain intersecting aims. They open up possibilities both for teachers to experiment with how science is taught and students to better explore the topics and the world around them. What sets them apart is inclusivity. While STEM isn’t very inclusive, NGSS broadens the parameters of scientific knowledge to everyone in order to build valuable connections with knowledge and responsibility, the real world and the human world, and ultimately with conserving the natural world and human progress.

Challenges in STEM education and how teachers can overcome them

Teachers are a huge influence on a student’s choice of subject matter or their decision to pursue a STEM career. The evidence from the ICM-S survey suggests that students’ decisions to study STEM in college can be directly influenced by classroom instruction and teacher advising. However, student motivation can be a huge problem for even the best of teachers. But teachers also face a lot of challenges when it comes to STEM education.


Here are the top challenges that most teachers face and a few suggestions for how to tackle them.


Teach them Young:


Student boredom is a huge challenge faced by most teachers. Research suggests that most students lose interest in Science between 12–13 years of age.


A good way to counteract this challenge is to inculcate a love for science early on in the student’s life. Early educators can integrate STEM lessons into a daily curriculum so children will develop a stronger understanding of these skills early on.


Most young children already engage with science without understanding. For example, when children stack playing blocks together, they are essentially learning laws of physics. Similarly, when they run off on nature walks to explore a fallen nest or flower, they are observing the biological world. Teachers can use this curiosity to direct the students in a more focused manner.


Innovative Teaching:


Science learning can be boring if it does not exemplify the effects of classroom theory in the real world. According to a study undertaken by the Institute of Engineering and Technology: “Most students see the curriculum as boring and irrelevant to life outside school.” Studies show that “practical activities enable students to build a bridge between what they can see and handle and scientific ideas that account for their observations”. Making these connections is challenging, so practical activities that make these links explicit are more likely to be successful. Practical project work also enables group discussions, teamwork, communication and peer-to-peer interaction, all of which are considered important 21st-century skills .


Topical Science:


Most children struggle to understand the importance of science because they cannot see the connection between what they learn in the classroom and the happenings of the real world. Students also have a perception of science subjects being either too difficult or too boring. Introducing topical science in class can help students understand the relevance of science in everyday life. A typical STEM lessons usually involves four basic steps:


  • Identify a real-world problem.
  • Ask questions to explore the problem (and potentially solve the problem).
  • Develop solutions.
  • Explore a hands-on activity.


Going Digital:


Most teachers struggle with a huge workload, which does not give them much time or energy to plan intricate STEM lessons. Technology can help here. The EPI found that teachers who make their pupils use technology for class projects in all or most lessons work 4.6 hours fewer per week than those who only occasionally use educational films and educational quizzes.


Educational films are a quick and fun way to capture students’ attention and can often be used to initiate teaching techniques like flipping the classroom.


Razing the Gender Divide:


The ratio of men to women in STEM fields is vastly disproportionate, with men outnumbering women. Efforts are now underway to include more girls in STEM. This is a challenging task, as most girls unfortunately grow up with a lot of prejudice, even if it is unintentional. Teachers can do lots of things to help their female students overcome these biases and nurture their STEM dreams: encourage female students to participate more, introduce them to more female role models or be a role model yourself. Most students look up to their teachers, so sharing your own experiences as a science teacher can be incredibly encouraging to your female students. Teachers can also introduce their female students to the various initiatives that advocate women’s role in STEM fields. Examples include: Girlswhocode, blackgirlscode and the National Girls Collaborative Project, amongst many others.


According to a National Science Report, “The gap in educational attainment separating underrepresented minorities from whites and Asians remains wide.” In the case of most minorities, this gap exists due to a lack of access to good education and resources.


So what can educators do to help?


Active Learning: Research shows that traditional teaching can often undermine students, particularly those from ethnic backgrounds. Active learning, on the other hand, is proven to be effective in learning STEM.


Encouragement and Support: Educators might not be able to erase cultural bias but they can help students overcome it through encouragement and attention, and by informing minority students of the various STEM opportunities that are available to them. For example: NACMEAPS and many others .


Educators play a vital role in shaping future generations and can have far reaching effects on a student’s life. Often it can be the difference between extinguishing a child’s dream of becoming a leading scientist, or nurturing it.