This past weekend marked the arrival of one of my favourite days of the year as a member of the Purdue community – Space Day! Now in its twenty-second year, Space Day is Purdue’s largest single-day STEM advocacy event. This year, over 700 students in grades 3-8 from across Indiana and the Midwest descended on our campus for a free day of space-themed educational activities led by over 300 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers. To cap it all off, volunteers and participants alike were treated to a special presentation by astronaut and Purdue alumnus Mark Polansky. Mark, a veteran astronaut with three Shuttle flights (including two as Commander) under his belt, enthralled everyone with stories of his time on the frontier of manned spaceflight and took questions from the kids in the audience. At an event where the focus is on getting young students excited about space, science, and the world of engineering, it was a perfect start to the day.
Space Day is a truly incredible event, the scale of which I didn’t fully realize until I became involved with planning it this past year. The logistics of bringing 700 children aged 8-14 to a college campus, finding volunteers to manage them, planning fun educational activities, finding supplies, training more volunteers to run each activity, and ensuring that for approximately 6 hours all 700 participants smoothly rotate through their activity sessions are absolutely mind-boggling, and the fact that this event has thrived for over two decades, growing and prospering under the leadership of a rotating cadre of dedicated undergraduate students is nothing short of astonishing. The students on the executive board and our department’s event coordinator, who make this event happen year after year, deserve all the credit in the world for making this insane concept a life-changing reality for so many students. So too does our astronaut guest Mark, for flying into town for barely 24 hours to help inspire a new generation of potential scientists.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this behemoth annual event is just how important STEM advocacy and scientific outreach are. The aerospace industry – and the scientific community in general – are rapidly blazing new trails into a future of vastly exciting potential. The breakthroughs which scientists and engineers are making every year are rapidly changing the face of what we as a species are capable of, and in some cases, what it even means to be human. And yet, as we stride brazenly into the unknown, it feels like we are leaving in our wake a gap between our community of researchers and the rest of the world. In a country where fewer than half of the citizens believe in anthropogenic climate change, and as many as 7% believe the moon landings, one of the crowning achievements of humankind, were faked, it’s hard not to see a gap of comprehension between scientists and the general public. Of course there’s a lot to be said on the vagaries of both traditional and new media in the 21st century, but it seems as though much of this gap can be attributed towards poor communication and a lack of outreach on behalf of the technical community to those – children and adults alike- who don’t have their fingers on the pulse of scientific progress. Every technical organization, university, and professional society touts their work in outreach and advocacy but these kinds of activities are seen too often as a diversion and an ancillary function, rather than what they need to be – an integral part of the process of scientific and engineering research. To fix the gaping divide between the public and the research community, we need to make outreach not just a buzzword or an occasional obligation, but a fundamental part of our culture and our ethos.
At Space Day each year, that is exactly what I see. I see hundreds of college kids from across the university drag themselves out of bed at 7 a.m. on a Saturday to show children just how much fun science can be. I see students put their studying and homework on hold to chaperone young kids around, answering engless questions and trying to accomplish the impossible task of maintaining order over a group of 30-40 rambunctious grade-schoolers. Why? Because even as students at the precursory stages of their careers, these volunteers know what an impact their verve and enthusiasm have on the participants. And watching these young children – strangers who come from hours away for the day’s festivities – work together to build rockets and spacesuits, solve simulated problems, and learn with their hands and their hearts, the effect is all but palpable. I imagine that only a few of our 700 participants will become engineers or scientists; fewer still will become aerospace engineers or space scientists. I am certain, however, that all of them left Purdue with a greater appreciation for what scientists and engineers do, and why they – as children and hopefully as adults – should care about science.
The technical world – whether it’s rocket science or radioastronomy; moon rocks or medicine – is an incredible human endeavour. And for those of us fortunate to be involved, it is imperative that we share that magic with those who aren’t – not just for their sake, but for ours.