Talking Personalized Learning with a Real-Life Astronaut

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Personalized Learning NASA
The STS 114 Crew – Charles Camarda second from the left.

By: Allison Zmuda

Picture this: I’m sitting in 13A and busily working on a Learning Personalized blog post as well as getting ready for the work week. Charles Camarda is sitting next to me in 13B.

Charles has been working at NASA Langley for over 40 years, and, yes, I am geeking out because I am sitting next to a real-live astronaut. He flew right after the Columbia accident as part of the STS 114 crew testing to make sure there would not be a similar catastrophe.

Charles and I chatted about the biggest education hang-ups in schools. Turns out that NASA and schools have the same basic problem — challenge of creating a culture of innovation in a world of bureaucracy. Real change, powerful shifts in practice that disrupt practice to create meaningful change.

A few of the nuggets from my conversation with Charles …

The Role of Teachers

Charles echoed the need for teachers to resume or reclaim their roles as innovators with the ability to frame problems, challenges, and ideas that are worthy of accomplishment.

“The ones that gravitate get it, but the organizations don’t,” he said. “Brilliant educators that get it but how can we unleash these educators to reframe or reimagine curriculum?”

Educating at NASA

Charles’ description of what he does at NASA could be interchanged with any teacher in the classroom.

“My job, my passion is to help them create curriculum grounded in real-world problems from graduate students all the way down to middle school,” he said.

“Want to connect kids a couple of grade levels up around these problems or challenges to set up a mentor-peer network, a continuous pull that inspires students and build relationships. When you put them together, it pushes them to do better, to be better.”

STEM Skills

I don’t know about you, but I will take stock in what an astronaut is recommending for STEM education.

“Engineering challenges are open-ended design challenges,” he said. “We allow students to be able to fail because the point is the development of the skills rather than arriving at a right answer. That to me is what success looks like, mastery of a skill is what’s most important.”

Front-Runner Finland

Personalized Learning NASAFinland continues to be a world-leader in how they are innovating school, abandoning subjects and moving on to topics. It’s no surprise Charles is headed to Finland to engage them in this type of work.

He is “working with the Ministry of Education in Finland and in the United to roll out this epic challenge program around sustaining humans on Mars.”

What they are trying to determine:

  • How do we get there?
  • What does living off the land look like on Mars? (Me: How freaking cool is that???)
  • What resources can we use to produce consumables to sustain them?

Importance of Soft Skills

STEM isn’t just about growing mathematicians and scientists. We also need to pay attention to the “soft skills” — cross-disciplinary dispositions that prepare students to make sense of complex problems, develop innovative solutions, and grow ideas.

“At NASA, we need students that are generally masterful at a significant number of skills but are specialized in a few,” said Charles. “In addition to significant background in science, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, we are also talking about dispositions too – like the ability to pose questions and pursue them, to be able to think critically and come up with an innovative solution to a problem, to be able to work together on a team regardless of personalities, to communicate with accuracy and precision, to build and fix things.

“For example, there is a 20–40 minute communication delay between Mars and Earth and the crew has to be self-sufficient to figure out problems that need immediate attention.”

It was a fascinating conversation to say the least! Hopefully this is not the last we have heard from Charles. Stay tuned …

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