A Novel Approach to a K12 School Focused on Space Exploration

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By Mark Wagner, Ph.D.

Introduction

With the current explosion of progress in space exploration and industry, many questions related to the first legitimate long term space settlements are being asked – and not just about technical or logistical issues. Space philosophers are beginning to look very seriously at questions of social significance, including legal precedence, methods of governance, and even how best to educate children being raised in space or on another planet. Elsey and Omarova, for instance, challenge scholars to imagine what an education system might look like on Mars. They acknowledge this as an imaginative enterprise at this point, but the question becomes much more concrete if we consider how best to educate those who will actually be the first settlers – and are likely in today’s classrooms. 

This question is thus already relevant if not pressing: how should K12 schools be designed to best prepare students for humanity’s multiplanet future? Today’s schools are not only poorly prepared for this future, they are poorly prepared for the current reality. School should be ready to handle the truly challenging problems of today while also preparing students for the unpredictable problems of tomorrow. Humanity cannot explore and settle space with an industrial age education system. Luckily, there are new mindsets and skill sets available to educators, drawn from the successes of silicon valley and the space industry itself – and already proven on the cutting edge of constructivist pedagogy and educational technology. 

This paper summarizes the academic justification behind the design of The Academy for the Relentless Exploration of Space (or ARES), a prototype secondary school created for the purpose of putting these practices into effect with a focus on preparing students to participate in the space industry (directly or indirectly). The school has a two part mission:

MISSION I – Prepare students to solve enormous challenges in any community, on any planet.

At ARES Learning, students build the knowledge, skills and mindsets necessary to navigate the great challenges of the future – on this planet or any other. ARES students emerge from their experience prepared for jobs that don’t yet exist, to use technology that hasn’t been invented, and to solve enormous problems we can’t foresee. ARES prepares young people to become the designers, builders, philosophers and explorers of tomorrow.

MISSION II – Fundamentally disrupt and transform the global education system.

The recent pandemic has shown traditional schools are not only unprepared for the challenges of the future, they are unprepared for the challenges of today. ARES is the new model for global education that combines the Explorer’s Mindset, Moonshot Thinking, and human-centered design… supported by bleeding edge technology and inspiring learning spaces. ARES places students at the center of solving enormous problems facing their communities – on this planet or any other. By design, ARES is a laboratory school meant to influence the true transformation of global education systems.

In particular, this paper articulates the reasoning behind the chosen curriculum, mindsets, and routines that form the foundation of the learning experience at ARES. A flexible curriculum is delivered via blended (face-to-face and online) methods. In addition to core subjects, it includes a foundation in problem-solving frameworks such as the explorer’s mindset, moonshot thinking, and design methodology. For maximum effectiveness, daily routines also focus on synthesis, collaboration, and reflection.

A Flexible Multi-Disciplinary Curriculum

At ARES Learning, learning experience in traditional subjects is based on CK-12, an internationally recognized core curriculum for English, Social studies, Math, Science, and more, including an introduction to philosophy. This system is an open educational resource offering interactive experiences rich with multi-media, adaptive practice, and simulations. The program is modular and customizable to individual student’s needs, and each student has agency in co-creating their own learning path. This approach provides a solid foundation for students’ academic future, and for the project-based learning that is the true focus of the ARES Experience.The CK-12 system is delivered via a blended learning approach, combining face-to-face and online learning experiences. A blended approach allows students and teachers to develop a face-to-face rapport while still having the opportunity to communicate often online, and has been shown to increase student to teacher interactions. Blended learning is particularly effective at teaching STEM subjects, including scientific reasoning and mathematics. The blended experience also helps students develop greater comfort writing across the curriculum. These basic skills help form the foundation needed for more advanced learning and higher order problem solving. 

In addition to their core subjects, all students participate fully in the rich experience of a supplemental “Launchpad Curriculum” where they are exposed to new ways of thinking – and get to set the Trajectory of their own advanced learning. All students are introduced to advanced domains of learning, like Philosophy, Anthropology, Linguistics, Psychology, and Political Science – as well as forward looking pursuits like Science Fiction as Literature, Fictional Languages, and Data Science for Forecasting. With a grounding in the physical and life sciences they then choose their own Space Science Trajectory with options including Astrophysics, Orbital Mechanics, Spacecraft Systems Design, Terraforming, or Genetic Engineering. This broad supplementary curriculum provides a deeper understanding of the world from which to launch their projects in the Moonshot Lab.  More importantly, a multi-disciplinary philosophy-based approach like this can help students develop the wide range of intellectual skills necessary for success in their future, and help them prepare for meaningful participatory citizenship. In many schools, there is an over emphasis on repetition of science facts; teachers typically fail to characterize scientific knowledge as tentative and the scientific method as creative. But when philosophy of science is emphasized rather than simply repeating facts provided by the teacher, “students construct their conceptual models and present them to others within the class.” Inclusion of science fiction as literature further prepares students to be creative in dealing with the unexpected, and has been demonstrated to be an effective method for teaching climate change, chemistry, and analytical skills – and for increasing interest in STEM based pursuits in general.

Mindsets and Skill Sets

In the tradition of great explorers from the Polynesian islanders to American astronauts – and the inspirational explorers of science fiction, ARES Learning is infused with the Explorer Mindset. The school is a program for students with a deep love of exploration, discovery, and adventure. The learning experiences are designed to increase comfort with the unknown and with facing challenges in rapidly changing environments. Students are encouraged to see potential, opportunity, and abundance when they encounter problems as opposed to seeing threat and scarcity. They are taught to operate from the presumption that possibilities always exist. National Geographic has provided a powerful model for exploratory learning by defining a framework for “The Mindset of an Explorer” including age-specific skills and knowledge – and attitudes such as curiosity, responsibility, and empowerment. This framework has been extended by educators to include tools for helping students “see, observe, build curiosity, learn responsibility, feel empowered, and be stewards in our interconnected world.” The Explorer’s Mindset is meant to develop a love of adventure, exploration, and discovery – and is important for breakthrough thinking. Importantly, the mindset can help students to be flexible, adaptable, and ready to make critical decisions without complete information. An Explorer’s Mindset can also help leaders shepherd a team through the process of innovation.

Though it’s a mindset that explorers have embraced for millennia, Moonshot Thinking was codified in President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to putting a man on the moon even though the technology didn’t exist and nobody knew how to do it yet. At Google’s X Lab this mindset was further formalized into a system for addressing huge challenges, applying radical solutions, and developing breakthrough technology. This mindset doesn’t seek a 10% improvement… it seeks a solution 10 times better than before, and it’s known also as 10X thinking. It requires failing forward and failing fast. This is exemplified in the Space X approach to developing new spacecraft. The ARES Learning model supports students as they address meaningful challenges in their community, generate innovative solutions, and implement creative uses of technology.

The system developed at X is a method for pursuing wildly ambitious goals, including “processes and culture (that) make it easier to make radical breakthroughs – repeatedly.” This sort of thinking is particularly relevant and beneficial in preparing for the challenges of humanity’s multi-planet future because “moonshots galvanise communities towards tackling a huge societal challenge and shap[ing a] desired future in the process.” It may also be particularly appropriate in the public sector (in public K12 schools for instance) as a way to address a social crisis.

Within the context of moonshot style ambitions, the ARES Learning method of solving problems is heavily influenced by Design Methodology (or Design Thinking), of the sort used and promoted by the Stanford D School.  This begins with understanding those people the problem affects, through a process of discovery, empathy, or ethnography. Then, our students define a problem before ideating a variety of possible solutions (using one of  many exercises in which they are trained), and choosing one to prototype and test first. They build a prototype online, in virtual reality, or in a maker space with real- world tools, including 3D printers. Based on the results of their initial tests, they iterate on their solution, pivot to a new one, or begin the process again. 

Design methodology (or design thinking) is “a human-centered problem-solving approach that may be used in the teaching/learning process to develop twenty-first century skills and enhance creativity and innovation.” The method has been effective in empowering teachers to facilitate constructivist learning and foster 21st-century skills in students. It also integrates well with the other methods in use at ARES, as design thinking helps build student motivation for exploration, confidence in self-exploration, and competence in teamwork (including expressing opinions and sharing knowledge), as well as building trust between student and teacher. It leads to increases in students’ creative confidence, self-efficacy, and ability to practically solve real-world problems. Also, it prepares students well for management, entrepreneurship, and challenging fields such as medicine.

Because of the way the Design Methodology is implemented in conjunction with Moonshot Thinking at ARES, there is room for truly innovative approaches, always encouraging students to think bigger – and providing exercises to help them get out of their comfort zone and leave behind their preconceptions.

Synthesis and Reflection

Inspired by the work of the Ad Astra school at Space X, the ARES Learning program focuses on synthesis throughout. Students aren’t just repeating right answers… they experience the tension of making difficult choices, and of risk-taking in their explorations and experiments. The faculty ensures that their challenges include ethical dimensions, in order to allow for more meaningful experiences, and deeper learning. Sufficient time is allowed for analysis, debate, strategy, iteration… and the changing of minds. The school has adopted the daily practice of sharing ideas during a “Midnight Lunch” (at noon) inspired by Thomas Edison, and the Japanese tradition of Hansei, or relentless self-reflection, aiming to help students accept faults and failures with the high degree of emotion needed to drive changes in the future. Synthesis requires students to add to existing information by contributing “their own thoughts, experiences, opinions, interpretations, and connections to generate… new and bigger [ideas].” For example, at Ad Astra, students engage in synthesis through complex scenarios – working as a team through “case studies, simulations, and game-based challenges.” Students practicing synthesis also hone their analytical skills as they break concepts down into key points that allow them to draw useful conclusions and make decisions in order to solve a meaningful problem. Ethical dimensions can be included in the process of problem-solving through synthesis; “some best practices include making consequences and feedback on choices clear, [and] allowing more time for [students] to form relationships… using authentic scenarios and contexts.

It was common for the scientists hired by Thomas Edison for his innovation factory in Menlo Park, N.J., to toil into the late evening or early morning hours, their boss alongside them. He often ordered a midnight lunch of meat, bread, cheese and beverages for the entire crew, to fuel their overnight discussions and theorizing. At a midnight lunch, Edison encouraged people from different project teams to “share their experiments, trade notebooks, and engage in spirited dialogue.” This arrangement allowed Individuals from diverse disciplines to offer multiple perspectives when problem-solving rapidly, thus avoiding both groupthink and a reliance on a culture of superstars. ARES Learning embraces this collaborative and innovative approach to what traditional school lunch time should be. Similarly, at the end of the day, students come back together for a period of reflecting on their learning.Hansei, or relentless self-reflection, is an important part of Japanese culture – a continuous practice of subtle meditation undertaken to look at past mistakes, outline the lessons learned, and pledge to act on those lessons. “Han” means to change, turn over, or turn upside down. “Sei” means to look back upon, review, and examine oneself.  In the workplace, Hansei typically involves taking individual responsibility for a problem and developing a (often written) plan for avoiding the issue in the future.  Studies show that Hansei enhances self-evaluation, improvement, and morality (thus also addressing the need for ethics education), and that this process is effective even for very young children.

Conclusion

The Academy for the Relentless Exploration of Space (or ARES Learning) is a prototype secondary school designed to prepare students for humanity’s multi-planet future. To that end, it incorporates a number of mindsets and skill sets more suited to open- ended problem-solving than traditional schooling. A flexible multi-disciplinary curriculum (including subjects like philosophy, anthropology, and data science) is delivered via blended learning methods to lay an academic foundation for students. From there, the program helps students develop experience with problem-solving strategies such as the explorer’s mindset, moonshot thinking, and design methodology. The school schedule also includes routines to encourage synthesis, collaboration, and reflection, thus amplifying what students are able to accomplish together in a short amount of time. This paper provides a summary of the academic justification for including these design elements. 

It is the author’s hope that this brief literature review might offer inspiration for educators in other contexts to implement some of these changes with their students, and that it might also inspire other researchers to explore some of these elements in more detail. Some questions suggesting further research include these: 

What subjects should space explorers have a basic grasp of for purposes of settlement on other planets? 

How might the explorer’s mindset (or moonshot thinking, or design thinking) be employed by secondary students to help them better understand the sorts of problems they might need to solve in space? 

How might learning experiences be crafted to provide students with opportunities for synthesis, collaboration, and reflection over a distance in online or virtual environments?

What if that distance included a 20-minute delay in communications back to experts, peers, and online resources on Earth if students are in fact settlers on a planet like Mars?

Download the full article with citations here

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