Looking to the stars to explore the future

We’ve always been fascinated by the stars and the infinite possibilities of space.

Since we first walked this earth, we’ve used mythology, astrology, religion, and the arts to study the stars and learn more about ourselves and our place in the universe. Even today, space themes continue to be popular in art forms such as the movies, literature, and music.

Think of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, or Elton John’s Rocket Man, not to mention the fabulous War of the Worlds album by Jeff Wayne or the Star Wars movies just to name a few. (I didn’t really need to include these links in this article, I just thought you’d enjoy them!)

The maps in the night sky

When Captain Cook and his Endeavour crew set off from England in 1768 he had very few navigational instruments to help him find Tahiti, a tiny Pacific island just 20 miles wide, so (like countless explorers before him) he relied very heavily on the stars to guide him.

His main purpose for crossing the mostly uncharted ocean was to observe and measure the transit of Venus across the sun to help determine the size of the solar system. Although the Endeavour reached Tahiti against all odds and with time to spare, the measurements taken by him and others across the globe were not accurate enough to reach a final conclusion. Still, they learned much from the experience and the techniques they used were continuously examined and refined resulting in many new approaches and technologies.

Jump ahead to 1969, the year that the crew of the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. The smart phones we have in our pockets today are more powerful than the entire computer system used for that feat and the team at NASA had few examples to learn from. They had to build every part and plan every step based on what they thought might happen.

Apart from the magnitude of the mission itself, they also developed a way to receive a video signal of the historic occasion AND broadcast it around the world. Australia’s radio telescopes played a significant role in this achievement. The moon landing was scheduled to happen just at the time when those in the northern hemisphere could only see the dark side of the moon so a direct transmission would not have worked.

To resolve this dilemma, the radio telescope in Parkes, NSW, was reprogrammed to receive video instead of audio signals. Although two other tracking stations were used (Honeysuckle Creek, near Canberra and Goldstone in California), the signals from Parkes had the best quality. When the time came, the signals were broadcast from the moon via the Parkes telescope to the rest of the world.

These are just some examples of the many ways we have used the wonders of space to advance our own knowledge. Each time we seek to find what’s ‘out there’ we develop new and amazing technologies that are then used in many other aspects of our lives.

Bringing the heavens to the classroom

This insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding of the universe is what drove Solange Cunin and her team at Cuberider to use space technology to help inspire STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subject participation in high schools.

The Cuberider program allows students to design and code experiments to run on a specially configured piece of sensor hardware sent via a SpaceX payload from Japan to the International Space Station. The experiments use the sensors on the hardware to test a wide variety of student hypotheses and the resulting data is beamed back to the students every two days for a month for analysis.

In her interview on The Mentor List podcast, Solange pointed out that the demand for people with a strong knowledge of STEM subjects in the workplace currently far outstrips supply. She believes that programs such as this will help to motivate students and show them how pursuing these areas will lead to a vast range of career opportunities. The program can be adapted to suit different skill levels and challenges the stereotypes that often deter students from pursuing STEM subjects.

Helping young people prepare for future work

In another recent interview on The Mentor List, social entrepreneur, innovator, influencer and author Jan Owen stated that:

“The future of work will transform rapidly. We expect a 15-year-old today to have 17 different jobs across 5 different industries.”

It is clear that schools have a big part to play* in preparing young people for the rapidly changing future ahead of them and for jobs that don’t even exist yet, although how they go about this is a matter of much debate.

*NB for Dave. When available, link this phrase to the upcoming article How schools of today can meet the workforce needs of tomorrow.

(To learn more about the changing nature of the workforce, see our article How to use your brain to help your career in the fourth industrial revolution.)

Many private organisations, such as Cuberider, are now collaborating with schools and creating projects that allow students to participate in activities that closely reflect the new working environment. Doing so gives students access to the latest technology and the chance to learn from those helping to drive the change.

Catherine Ball is another Australian with a passion for helping young people become interested in studying STEM subjects. Her mission is to encourage more girls to get involved in coding, programming and drone technology through the SheFlies program in classrooms. SheFlies aims to reach 100,000 women and girls in 2017.

These entrepreneurs looked up to the heavens and found ways to show that one person or a small group of people can make a difference in the futures of others in ways they may never have thought of. Once each of the people they help realises they, too, can make a difference to countless others, the flow-on effects will be mind-blowing.

What can you do?

  • Get involved. Do you have a passion for science, technology, engineering or maths yourself? Are you in an industry with a strong demand for new workers with these skills? If you answered yes to either of these questions, perhaps you could find a way to use your own knowledge and experience to create exciting programs for school students?
  • Help fund these projects. If you hear of a company planning interesting collaborations with schools, you might consider sponsoring the project or investing some capital in the company.
  • Encourage the young people around you to pursue STEM subjects. Parents, in particular, are in an ideal position to help students discover the world of opportunities that STEM subjects will open for them. Help break down the stereotypes and show young people that they can be successful in these areas regardless of gender, age or personality. The universe awaits them.

Call to action…

24-year-old Solange Cunin is herself a terrific example of how young girls can (and do) excel in STEM subjects. She was given her first telescope at the age of eight and convinced everyone around her that she would become an aerospace engineer.

Solange went on to receive a Bachelors in Mathematics and Aerospace Engineering at University of New South Wales. She founded Cuberider, which brings access to space down into the classroom, and has led it to be the first Australian payload to ever go to the International Space Station and inspired thousands of young people along the way.

Hear more of Solange’s amazing story by listening to her podcast interview on The Mentor List. Who knows? Maybe you’ll also look up to the stars and find ways to learn from them, too?

Kick start your personal journey to success from the conversations David has with his inspirational guests on The Mentor List. www.mentorlist.com.au

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