The Course of Reason

Science, Math, and Problem Solving, NASA style

January 22, 2013

Kids love space.  The Sagan knew this. His acolytes the Nye and the deGrasse Tyson know this. One of the best ways to introduce kids to science is through space.  It is so big and captivating, appealing to the sense of wonder kids still have, before they become jaded in their teenage years.  If kids are introduced to space at the right time, it might even help mitigate the apathy so common in adolescence.  So, it is in parents’ best interests to introduce kids to science through space.


Carl Sagan, in turtleneck.

The Wisdom of The Sagan

When I was a kid, I wanted to go to Space Camp.  I saw an advertisement for it in an issue of National Geographic World.  The ad featured a kid in one of those disorientation chairs, which spins you around on multiple axes to simulate the disorientation one might feel in a mid-flight disaster. I’ll be honest, that’s what sold me. I wanted to experience all those cool astronaut things. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go. However, the ad left quite an impression on me, and I developed an interest in space anyway.  Even though they didn’t get my parents’ money, the Space Camp ad successfully generated a young kid’s interest in space.  Little did I know, I had just become interested in science and math.

Of course, very few of my teachers capitalized on this fledgling interest.  It is only thanks to Bill Nye’s television show that my interest in science and math was maintained and encouraged.  Much more could have been done to exploit my interests in space for the purpose of teaching me math and science, that’s to be sure.

Bill Nye, with bow tie

Bill Nye, made famous for his discovery that kids also love bow ties.

Obviously, Apollo 13 became one of my favorite movies, along with Jurassic Park (dinosaurs are also classic kids’ favorites).  There is a scene in Apollo 13 in which Jim Lovell must compute by pencil and paper the correct gimbal conversions.  He is under enormous pressure, with his life and the lives of his fellow astronauts depending on his arithmetic ability.

Why wasn’t this scene, and scenes like it, used as a way to make learning arithmetic exciting?  There are two types of word problems one can use to teach math problems.  The first is the traditional word problem we are all familiar with, involving apples and coins and little Peter or whoever.  The second is a story the student is invited to take part in, a role playing, in which he or she must practice arithmetic as some exciting part of the story.  Naturally, these stories should involve space (or dinosaurs. Or better yet, dinosaurs in space.). 

Dinosaurs doing battle in space.

The ultimate teaching tool.

There are plenty of real life examples from NASA’s glorious history that children can re-live, problems that they can re-solve with their newly discovered arithmetic abilities. Let the children watch the scene, and then experience for themselves the drama of trying to save everyone with a pencil and paper.  Could they do it?  If they are encouraged to see it as a game, rather than as rote memorization of rules, I am sure they would be properly motivated to participate.

Similarly, there are numerous cases of clever problem solving to be mined from NASA’s history.  I’ll stick with the Apollo 13 case.  “You and your team have a job to do.  You’ve got to figure out how to fit a square peg into a round hole, using nothing but socks, plastic bags, duct tape, and a few other items. You see, the square peg is a crucial carbon dioxide filter that the crew depends on for survival.  However, because the mission is a government operation, the air filter system has a round hole to receive the device’s tube!  Their lives are in your hands!  Using only the items at your table and your ingenuity, fit the two devices together and save the crew’s lives!”  Guess what.  You just tricked them into exploring the wonderful world of engineering.

Other NASA case studies can teach the importance of paying attention to details, like which units of measurement are being used.

The Mars Climate Orbiter; artist's depiction.

Mars Climate Orbiter, sent
careening into space because some scientists were using pound-seconds
while others were using newton-seconds.  Square pegs and round holes
all over again!

These types of activities can engrain in kids’ minds the practical importance and excitement to be had from the world of math, science, and engineering.  America has too many future business and marketing majors.  We need more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.  As the tobacco companies know, it is imperative that we get ‘em while they’re young.

Patrick Bateman, shirtless, pointing at a camera filming him, winking.

What your kid aspires to be
if NASA is not involved in the upbringing…



About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.




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