New Horizons: Opening a World of Possibilities for Students

July 14th marked a historic day for NASA and space exploration, after a nine-year journey the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto providing us with a number of firsts for space exploration. It marks the first time we have seen clear pictures of Pluto. And the first time in decades we are exploring an entirely new world to this degree of detail. We are pushing the frontiers of our knowledge – everything we discover will be a first.

Once the initial excitement of the first pictures of Pluto fades, how can we draw upon this event to inspire students and keep their curiosity in space exploration and science alive? Students and adults alike, are fascinated by space exploration, it draws upon our innate curiosity as humans to explore the unknown and the world around us. But, other than the excitement of new discoveries, what does space exploration mean to students in the classroom today?

Helping students understand the details of space missions will expose them to the many facets of space exploration and where, or how, they might get involved, not only in future, yet unplanned missions, but those that are taking place now. New Horizons officially launched in 2006, the mission is taking place using decade-old technology – for perspective the iPhone had not been released when New Horizons launched.

Although we will receive pictures of Pluto within a day of the flyby, the distance between Pluto and Earth means it will take over a year for all the data from the primary mission to be received, Pluto’s distance from Earth means New Horizons’ radio signal is weak and can only transmit the data at a very low bit rate, and this does not include any additional data that will be recovered when New Horizons goes on to explore another object in the Kuiper Belt.

Consider another NASA mission, OSIRIS-Rex, designed to collect a pure sample from asteroid Bennu. Set to launch next year, it will not return its samples to Earth until 2023.

Students, who are in school today, in any grade, could be working on the data, samples and findings from the missions we are discussing today. Technology is evolving so rapidly that students will be using instruments not yet invented to answer questions that we have not yet thought of. As someone who is just at the beginning of their scientific career, this is a very exciting prospect.

However, in order to be successful as scientists and engineers students need to be able to read, write, and think like scientists and engineers. They need the skills to ask questions, build hypothesis, carry out investigations, interpret data and draw conclusions. They need to build discipline specific literacy and understand how to draw upon their skills and knowledge appropriately. By adopting an inquiry-based approach to instruction students can not only build these necessary skills but also how to apply them in the real world.

Sharing these important moments with students and discussing how they could have a career that is part of this mission is critical for demonstrating to students the real world application of what they are learning in the classroom. By associating these events that students are excited about to the work they are completing in the classroom we are opening up a world of possibilities for students who may previously have not contemplated a scientific career.

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