A Vision of Education in the Next Ten to Twenty Years

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

[Note: This is a follow-up to Frank's earlier article, "21st Century Schools: Bridging the Gap Between Traditional and Digital Learning Resources." In this imaginative scenario, he shares a vision of how technology expands the ways in which 21st century students will learn. -Editor]

In the middle of the night, I thought about how a student’s educational life might play out in the next ten to twenty years. Endeavour’s launch was magnificent. We will step foot on Mars someday.

James Josiah Coleman was born on February 9, 2000, in Lanham, Maryland, just outside the Goddard NASA space center. You might even say he was a space baby. His father was a communications expert at NASA, and his aunt was a NASA astronaut. His crib had plastic shuttles hanging over it, and his first toys were NASA models. As a youngster he knew the statistics about all the shuttle flights, especially the ones his aunt flew on. His mother was a PhD research scientist at the Greenbelt Department of Agriculture Research Center. He had a younger sister named Casey.

Space shuttle Endeavour taking off, May 16, 2011 (Jim Grossman/NASA)Photo credit NASA/Jim Grossmann

He was known by his friends as “JJ” and was considered a nerd because even as a small kid he was obsessed with NASA data. He knew everything about Mars and dreamed of going there. Early on as a child he learned to speak Russian because his aunt Cathy spoke Russian as a member of the International Space Station crew. JJ had a talent for speaking other languages and also began to learn Chinese when he was in grade school. He did this by taking a Chinese course on line where he spoke with native Chinese speakers weekly via SKYPE.

The local school system was very open, allowing for a range of options from home schooling to traditional classrooms and combinations thereof. JJ liked a lot of individual work and online courses whereas Casey preferred traditional classes.

The school system was also big on mentoring, arranging for mentors from the community and allowing older students to mentor younger ones. JJ had long had a mentor, former astronaut and senator John Glenn who worked with him online. JJ liked to attend traditional civics and history classes because he enjoyed the discussions, but for much of his science and mathematics he preferred online classes because he could progress at his own rate. Online, he was able to work in teams to solve problems and to consult with mentors to explore critical issues.

JJ was a good musician. He played the oboe so he was in the school orchestra. He liked long distance running and was on the school track team.

He especially enjoyed the opportunity to tutor and mentor younger kids. He mentored fifth grade students in STEM subjects. He owned a copy of the science series The Voyage of the Mimi and used it as the base for his tutoring. He especially saw in the study of whales and whalers a relationship to space scientists since whalers were often away from home for years as were astronauts who served on the International Space Station or those who would go to Mars.

JJ worked on the New Frontier Mars City team to design and build a research balloon to fly on Mars with a payload that collected pictures and radiation data as well as pressure and temperature. He worked on another team to build a robot through cardboard engineering projects that was designed to pick up rocks and sand from specific sites on Mars, analyzing them and sending the information back to Earth. JJ also worked on a team that designed and built an airplane designed to fly on Mars’ lower gravity and atmosphere.

After graduating from high school, JJ was accepted as a student at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis where he majored in physics, and after completing his degree he became a jet pilot. He graduated third in his class. After a few years, he was accepted in the NASA program and became an astronaut, fulfilling his lifelong dream. His aunt had done pioneer work on the International Space Station, studying the scientific characteristics of liquids in space.

By the time he became an astronaut, he had married Ruth Carmichael, a PhD microbiologist from John Hopkins University. They have one child, a girl named Margaret.

JJ was selected to be a Mars crew member in 2031 on the first mission to Mars. He is a lifelong learner. Even with his hard work in preparing for the Mars mission, he is studying Arabic online. He worries a bit about being away for a long period from Ruth and Margaret on the Mars Mission, but he has prepared a learning program for little Margaret to be used while he is away. Among other resources, it includes The Voyage of the Mimi.

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