During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised that NASA "will develop K-12 education activities to translate the successes of our civil space programs, particularly our nation's scientific discoveries, our technology developments, and space exploration activities, into instructional programs for our children."
Educational programs are nothing new to NASA -- the agency does lots of educational work, from design competitions and teacher training to simulator experiences for kids. In the final bill that funds NASA, K-12 education spending was higher than what Obama had requested in his proposed budget: $46.5 million, compared to $43.3 million requested. But the final amount is slightly less for K-12 education than the $47.5 million spent in fiscal year 2009.
Despite the modest decline in funding, space experts said they see anecdotal signs of a renewed interest by NASA in K-12 education projects, which have sometimes received less attention and funding than programs targeted at higher education. "I produce an internal newsletter identifying grant opportunities and see a growing number of NASA K-12 teacher workshops, competitions, and resource announcements that are consistent with the promise's intent," said Edward Ellegood, space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
At the same time, Obama is also making a broader push on science, technology, education and mathematics (or "STEM") education. On Jan. 6, 2010, Obama announced "several new and innovative partnerships involving major companies, universities, foundations, nonprofit organizations and government agencies designed to attract, develop, reward and retain outstanding educators" in the STEM fields. These fall under his "Educate to Innovate" initiative.
Among the programs highlighted by the president in his Jan. 6 announcement was NASA's "Summer of Innovation” enrichment program. Under that effort, NASA, in partnership with companies, nonprofits, and states, will launch a pilot program to enhance STEM learning opportunities for students during the summer, with an emphasis on broadening participation of underrepresented groups. "Through competitive grants to states, NASA will use its substantial STEM assets -– including the more than 11,000 NASA scientists and engineers -– to create multiweek summer learning programs (a blend of classroom time, camp programs, internships, and mentoring), that will help thousands of teachers and students in the first year," a White House statement said.
In one sense, NASA already undertakes millions of dollars worth of educational activities per year, including many geared toward K-12 students. That makes it easy for the administration to uphold the spirit of this promise. But we're reluctant to consider it a Promise Kept because the administration sought a reduction in funding for NASA's K-12 educational activities, and Congress ended up providing less money than allocated in the prior year. So we'll await next year's budget and call it, for now, In the Works.