Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) degrees and careers have a reputation for being difficult to attain. The public often perceives that scientists must have an innate talent for these fields. Ad Astra Academy was created to break these barriers and stigmas, notably for students who may be academically struggling.
Through 2015 and 2018, students between the ages of 12 and 16 were selected to participate in Ad Astra Academy in the City of God neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This location is a high risk zone for students to fail or drop out of school. Researchers wanted to see if short, intense science programs would decrease drop-out risks and encourage students to further engage in STEM fields.
The Ad Astra Academy connected students with real working scientists and provided them with opportunities to participate in real NASA projects. Sessions were broken into multiple segments, with pre-tests and post-tests administered to measure how well the students absorbed the concepts presented by the program. The researchers measured how much students understated the importance of the scientific method and their ability to follow the steps of the scientific method. They also presented students with first hand scientist experiences by video conferencing with NASA scientists. Student knowledge of surviving in space, life existing outside of the Earth, and Mars exploration concepts were also monitored.
Students initially met with local teams to prepare for the upcoming workshops to create an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. The students were then visited by an international team that presented two, intensive, one-week sessions. The sessions involved classroom-based lectures, interactive experiences, and field trips. The sessions would end with a Capstone Project that allowed participants to engage with real, ongoing NASA missions.
Using images requested from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment instrument, students were able to engage with real working NASA scientists to discuss Mars past and present conditions. Students also had an opportunity to construct their own rovers using paper craft and household items. This was to develop engineering and design skills and discuss mock mission plans with scientists from the NASA Mars Science Laboratory.
Despite the limited sample size, the researchers noted a great improvement in the students analytical skills and scientific knowledge. Additionally, they observed that by tying in real scientist experiences, students became more confident in themselves and in their ability to share science with their communities. Student post-tests results showed an increase in understanding the complexities of space missions and problem solving skills.
Overall, the students stated their experiences within the Ad Astra Academy were eye opening. Several mentioned feeling surprised when learning about all the opportunities to practice science within the natural world and that careers in the STEM fields were possible for them. While further targeted studies need to be done on larger student sample sizes, initial results showed promise. In the future, researchers hope to see more students show a positive correlation between Ad Astra’s programming and their confidence in STEM subjects. Ultimately, it was clear that connecting the human experience to difficult subjects allowed students to see their own potential. Students who may have held assumptions about their abilities in science learned that effort and persistence brings success in the STEM fields, not necessarily gifted ability.