Being an astronaut teacher who works with kids, I am often discussing with students (and parents) what they can do now to prepare to be an astronaut. Since the idea I have about astronauts is that the role “astronaut” is about to evolve from “people who go to space” into “people who work and live in space”–or what I call “humannaires” (think of the name legionnaires)–this is a really good question. Especially since astronautics as a field is changing so rapidly.
For instance, “humannaire” is a new job that has not even been defined yet, it has just been invented!
That is good. The fact that we have the opportunity to create a job description for “humannaires” which borrows from astronauts but allows us to be creative makes the question even more exciting.
“Humannaires” by current definition are “people who work and live (and play) in space”. As a job description, people who will be working in space is certainly reality. Space as a career is fast-tracking its way to the present. Yet since humannaires is a role we are still inventing we have the freedom to make it however we want it. Now that’s the exciting part!
So in imagining what it means to be a humannaire, there are three important ways I encourage children to prepare to be one of the first people from earth who get to work and live in space. Allow me to describe them.
When I think of humannaires, I know that working in space is going to require the ability to think on my feet (or on my head if there’s no gravity). Experience working in those kind of settings leads me to believe that video games are very helpful.
It is sort of crazy seeing video games teach important space skills, like fast and clear-thinking, to kids but it’s true: they do. The future is filled with unexpected surprises and this is one of them. There are such a variety of types of games with such a variety of challenges, I can safely say video games–used responsibly–are probably one of the best commonly accesible tools for training children important complex thinking and reaction skills.
The funny thing about students who spend a lot of time playing video games is that some fail to spend time on other essential skills such as reading and math. The children I work with most closely excel at both, gaming and scholastics. The exception to this are students who excel in academics but don’t play regularly video games, I do often work with these children. However, the children I work with least of all are the ones who spend their time exclusively playing video games.
(As an astronaut teacher, I don’t have time for students who play video games exclusively. I know kids who play video games but won’t do chores. I know kids who play video games but let their school grades slip. I even know kids who would rather play video games than be simply courteous or polite. Actually, I should say I know of kids like this. I spend very little time with people no matter how old they are who don’t have time to be courteous or polite. Life is too short for ordinary rudeness. I have too much to offer to children and students who are fully engaged and participating!)
Now here’s a funny thing. While I encourage playing video games as a way of encouraging and developing important thinking skills, video games are actually less important than participation. When I was a pre-teen I had problems participating in gym (physical education). I didn’t like dressing out, I didn’t like sports, I didn’t even care for showering afterwards. Finally a coach noticed this challenge of mine and took me aside. She explained the point of gym was not what I imagined it to be, that it was about figuring out how to work together. She also explained how the people who did best at sports needed thinkers (I was a thinker) to help them with “strategies and tactics”. However, unless I participated the skills I brought to the table would never be put to use.
Something clicked for me then. While I was not gifted with natural coordination or size, I had the gift of intelligence. And being tall and skinny, I was fast. Using my talents I was able to make a real contribution to team sports. When it came to track or swimming, I excelled. No one could touch me!
The key was getting over myself. I was holding myself back from participating. Once I saw this, suddenly I fit into a role custom made for me and that had been waiting for me the entire time. I was “the smart kid”. (And later I was “the fast kid” and “the tall kid”.)
So clearly another important preparation for becoming an astronaut or humannaire is participating. Or, finding where you fit in, which is also important. However, the point I was making was about the importance of discovering allies.
That coach changed my life. She took the time to take me aside and “explain the game”, and what was really going on and how things really worked. She was my ally. She help me fit in.
As life goes on, we find that discovering allies is the single most important practical life strategy for success in almost any field, work, school, play, business, relationships, everything. From allies we develop alliances.
I have aunts and uncles who are my allies. I have had bosses who were (and years later still are) my allies. I have had fellow students in class who looked out for me–and who I looked out for in return! My wife is my biggest ally yet even she realizes that what makes that true us that some of her best allies are people who are my best allies and who help form my most effective alliances.
What do I need allies for? For myself, I need allies who understand how inspiring children is the most important task for moving humankind to the stars. I need allies who make sure we fund space programs and invest in space so that the children I am encouraging will have space vehicles to get them to space. I need allies who help me get the word out to students about how astronautics is a career opportunity and what children who want to work in space need to be doing to be one of the people who get to be a humannaire!
Interestingly, there is an ally for all of us in this regard that is not even alive. When I was a kid this ally did not even exist (though believe me while I was using a library or encyclopedia I imagined it existing). It is like a robot in some ways and I believe that developing a relationship with this particular ally is one of the most important ways any student can prepare for working in space and space exploration.
The ally is Google.
Believe it or not, learning to interact with and developing a relationship (“an alliance”) with Google is probably the number one ways any student can prepare for space. Google knows a lot. Google may not know it knows a lot but it knows a lot. Since Google doesn’t “talk”, we have to figure the best way how to get the best answers from Google.
Some people ask Google questions. They type, “how far is it from the earth to the moon?” Or, “how long does it take to get to planet Mars?”
Other people realize how smart Google is and know that Google understands much more than most people realize. They type, “distance earth moon” (238,900 miles) or “time to get to mars” (first link: 150-300 days).
Learning Google is learning how to interact with something which has its own way of “thinking”. Those of us who are better at this have advantages at being able to best able to interact with computers and technology. In this regard, Google is like another kind of life form. The advantages of being able to communicate with another life form becomes obvious when we are talking about exploring space. Should we ever encounter extraterrestrial life who knows if it is even going to use language—maybe it will communicate in emotions! Back to Google, it will not be too surprising when one day Google becomes a little friend we take with us wherever we go, one that knows pretty much everything about everything.
Speculations aside, Google is an important tool. Understanding how to “talk” with Google and how to get not just any answer but the best answer is more than a skill; it is a real advantage.
No doubt, these three are unusual or unexpected recommendations for preparing students and children for careers in astronautics and space. Who would think a teacher would encourage video game playing? Yet in Jamaica, where I provide computer workstations for schools, we have successfully used computer time and video game time to encourage success in classrooms by giving it as a reward (or taking away computer time as behavior correction. Boo.).
But the future is unusual. What will unfold is forever unexpected. Therefore, the best approach is to be prepared for a variety of circumstance with a variety of skills. This comes through active participation and a variety of experiences. Being talented in one field such as mathematics, athletics or the arts is terrific as long as we are well-rounded in the others. (Think of an egg, defined at the top and well-rounded at the bottom.) Being good at one thing while being prepared to deal with others is a smart approach for every field, especially astronautics.
So, in order of my recommendations:
- Responsible use of video gaming
- Fostering allies to create alliances
- Learning Google
When children and students want to work and live in space, being a real humannaire, they must understand being a humannaire is going to be one of the most fantastic opportunities in all of human history and it is one that is quickly becoming real as a career choice. The key to getting in and fitting in, to moving from thinker to doer, and to becoming one of the first humannaires from planet earth, is inspiring imaginative participation. Not only by future astronauts but by the astronaut teachers as well.