| By Gregory E. Chamitoff, Ph.D. |
Never in human history has the pace of change been so rapid as it is today. In the 21st century it seems that everything is driven by change, and in fact, our modern society welcomes it, works for it and waits for it. In everything from our politics to our mobile phones, we are looking ahead for the next (hopeful) improvement. In our time, we expect medical research to create new and better cures for our ailments and hope that we can benefit from these advances when the need arises. We expect to get places faster and safer than ever before. The newest technologies of today, such as robotics, drones and virtual reality become our toys, our tools, and eventually, part of the fabric of our society tomorrow. Within a generation, the Internet has massively changed our world. Our children are not growing up in the same world as a generation ago. With instant access to all of humanity’s knowledge, and with instant communication with nearly anyone on the globe, comes a massive shift in our culture, awareness, and the possibilities of even faster change on a global scale. As events unfold anywhere on Earth, most of our species is now engaged and reacts simultaneously. The stock market, worldwide protests, and outbreaks of disease are all examples of how interconnected we now are on a planetary scale. This is unprecedented in history and could not be more different than how humans have experienced life in the past. By comparison, for most of human history, one could expect to learn the basics, perhaps master some specialised skills, and then live out one’s life with very little change in the environment. Technological advances came very slowly for thousands of years until the industrial revolution. Since that time, the pace of change has grown exponentially. Today that change is so dramatic that the life experience of our children is dramatically different than our own. It is against this backdrop of change, that we must consider how to interact with, guide and teach the next generation.
Looking down on Earth from the International Space Station, I could not help but be overwhelmed with questions of who we are, how did we get here, and what the future will hold. It’s incredible to realise that the advancements of only the past 100 years or so (since the Wright Brother’s figured out how to achieve powered flight) have given us the knowledge and skills to leave our planet altogether and explore the cosmos. While standing on the surface of the Earth, it is sometimes difficult to visualise the future. However, looking at the Earth from the Space Station, it is much easier to see that humanity has an incredible future ahead if we can only embrace it. In the same way that we have explored and colonised nearly every part of the Earth, our solar system beckons us to take the next giant leap and colonize other planets, eventually other star systems and the galaxy. It seems like science fiction, but we are already there. The Space Station is a massive, football-field size, outpost – the pinnacle of our current technology, and is the doorstep to a positive and prosperous future for humanity. It is a flagship of our collective capability, a result of collaboration on a world-wide scale, and an output of our society embracing the change that technology brings.
The view of Earth from Space stimulates more questions than answers, but one thought became clear to me eventually. The most important thing we can do in our time is to inspire the next generation to create that positive vision for humanity. Such a vision includes more than the exploration and colonisation beyond Earth. It includes peace, prosperity and collective growth toward a global society with a common purpose. Perhaps the most important accomplishment of space exploration is bringing together people, organisations and countries to work peacefully toward such a common purpose. Perhaps one of the most important things we do from Space, is to talk with thousands of children around the world, and help inspire them to see that they can be part of something greater than themselves and with goals to benefit all of humanity.
After nearly 20 years with NASA, and visiting hundreds of schools around the world, I now find myself in the classroom teaching students about engineering and technology at the university level. Having accomplished the goal of living and working in Space, my purpose now is to inspire the next generation to take the next steps to create a positive future. When it comes to teaching, I believe that this must be done by embracing the change and new technology around us. The students embrace this change wholeheartedly and automatically – it is the fabric of their time and their lives. In order to communicate with them, reach them and inspire them, we must engage them with the excitement and power of the new tools that advance our society and education itself. These tools are not only helpful for teaching, they are also the tools that will evolve into those they will need and use in their future careers and to accomplish their dreams.
As a parent of 12-year-old twins, I find myself constantly torn between the idea of encouraging my kids to use technology and the desire to take it away. Concerns about social media and exposure to unwanted influences are very real. The perception that electronic devices get in the way of real-life activities and face-to-face interactions in the real-world is ever present. But for them, the connection to the real-world is also through these devices. Even more, their connection to information and learning is there too. More than once I have seen my kids watching a YouTube video and asked them why they are not doing their homework. In fact, they were! At times, I’ve asked for a phone to be put away, but rather than chatting with friends, I found that the actual activity was programming something in Python. While video games do steal too much of their time, despite all family rules, like it or not, the skills to find information, discern credibility, and learn how to use new resources and tools, and to keep up with the advancxements in these tools, are critical skills for students today. Better ways to do everything, and the skills required, are evolving so fast that it is difficult to keep up with the names of tools, let alone how to use them. As a professor with graduate students working in my lab, I see the skills of the most successful of all students. They are masterful with computers and programming, always up-to-speed with the latest software tools for collaborative development and design, and they keep informed about parallel developments world-wide. By the way, these are not computer science majors!
The students of today are not afraid of technology or change, quite the opposite. They embrace it and are stimulated and motivated by it. Inspired by watching my own kids play MINECRAFT, which is an online collaborative and creative game, I recently launched a project called SpaceCRAFT. The idea is to enable worldwide collaboration in creating that positive future for humanity in Space. Virtual Reality (VR) is one of those technologies, like the Internet, that will be transformative in the way our society works and connects. SpaceCRAFT is a platform for virtually creating and experiencing our future, so we can try it out, before we actually build it. The combination of this new technology and the dream of our future in Space has been an electrifying catalyst for motivating students, and since the project began this year, there have already been hundreds of students involved on two continents (America and Australia). In VR you can build anything, and you can test it out, in combination with things built by others, and in any imaginable environment. Wood shop and metal shop have been replaced entirely with VR design tools and 3D printers. But the true value of this technology is the collective learning and collaboration that is possible on a worldwide scale. While more advanced students may be creating possibilities for the future, younger students can be engaged by experiencing them. Whether it is visiting the Eiffel Tower or standing outside your habitat in a spacesuit on the surface of Mars, it is now possible to explore and experience the universe virtually. The creativity that will come from large scale collaboration in virtual reality will bring a new level of explosive advancement (and change). From pictures on a page to the experience of virtually being there, the change for education and learning will also be tremendous and one that cannot be ignored.
VR (and AR – Augmented Reality) have fantastic potential to transform education and the learning process. These technologies are already radically changing the way we convey information, perform complex tasks, and interact with the real-world. Imagine studying anatomy by climbing around inside a virtual organism, or learning about other planets by virtually visiting them. Pilots are already using AR to see in any direction around their aircraft (effectively seeing through the aircraft) for enhanced situational awareness. Engineers are performing complex tasks following interactive procedures that appear before their eyes guided by visual recognition of the hardware they are working on. Astronauts are experimenting with the teleoperation of robots for exploration, and telepresence to perform remote controlled surgery. For education, VR/AR has the potential to dramatically change the way students access and interact with collective human knowledge and experience. Today it is common to watch a video to learn how to do something. Soon it will be common to perform and experience the entire process virtually. Even further, intelligent agents will be able to monitor and guide you through the steps to accomplish anything, much like we follow voice guidance on Google Maps today. The classroom itself is likely to be transformed into a virtual experience, with few people actually being physically collocated. Such changes are coming, and there is little choice but to embrace them and determine how to assure they improve and not detract from the learning process.
While technology doesn’t equal progress, it promises great potential for a prosperous future. Inspiration, however, comes from people, and it is very important to remember that it is the teacher who inspires the student, not the tools. Expertise with the current technology is a critical skill for our students, and as such it must be continually embraced and utilised as a normal part of learning. It can also offer fantastic possibilities to accelerate learning and experience. However, in the same way that the world was changed when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon, we are inspired by the sharing of human stories and experience. Students want to grow up and be like their heroes (i.e. teachers). In the classroom and in the real-world, we (heroes) must find ways to use our advancing technology to inspire the next generation to build that positive future.
Gregory E. Chamitoff, Ph.D. is a former NASA Astronaut and Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M and the University of Sydney.