Astronaut Skills for Real Life Learning: Ethical Dilemmas as a Launchpad for Problem-Solving, Part 2 | Harbord & Khan | 7 Min Read

How do students manage uncertain or unknown situations themselves? What skills do they need? In this article, we will explore links between astronaut proficiencies and global skills, including extracts from interviews with astronauts and an aerospace engineer. Give your students opportunities to consider how ethical dilemmas relating to real-world issues can inspire them to find innovative solutions. In what ways can the ethical dilemma ‘Expansion to the stars versus staying on the Earth: how can we plan for and create an unpredictable future?’ be a launchpad for problem-solving? Students need to weigh the ideas of humankind having the courage to take responsibility for the state of our planet or to explore new worlds and begin living in an unknown place.

Lately, the news tells us that commercial space exploration will be the next great travel experience as plans are made for paying customers. Controversially Elon Musk of SpaceX and Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame) and his company Blue Horizons are both promoting space tourism. Critics warn that the money spent on these ‘joyrides’ for the super-wealthy could be used for addressing the climate disaster or other pressing world issues. This would be an interesting debate for your students when considering the ethical dilemma.

There has been renewed interest in space exploration and collaboration from many different countries. Recently mysterious new rocks have been collected by NASA’s Mars rover. These discoveries are hard-earned and it is symbolic that the exploratory robotic rover is called Perseverance. What are the qualities you need to be an astronaut and how can we explore these as learning opportunities to boost student learning? Gary Beven, Flight Surgeon and Chief of Aerospace Psychiatry at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, believes candidates need to have nine suitability proficiencies (Patel, 2016).

Ethical dilemmas, astronaut proficiencies, and Global Skills

We can highlight and explore the links between astronaut proficiencies and global skills as promoted in PBL learning. Making these novel connections with our students using ethical dilemmas, shows them critical skills are essential in life beyond their school experience.

Ethical Dilemma

Expansion to the stars versus staying on the Earth: how can we plan for and create an unpredictable future?

  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Judgement and Decision Making.
    • Global skills: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: how to reason and rationalize a solution, look to another discipline to seek an answer, and look for other answers that may not be obvious.
    • Big idea: Space technologies can benefit people on Earth versus unprecedented economic global disparity.

“‘Spinoffs’ of space technology, including Velcro, integrated circuits, non-military uses of GPS, and a whole host of products are so much a part of daily life that we don’t think of them as having their beginnings in space technologies.  Where the real money will be in the future products that will be made in space for use on Earth. A likely visible start is space tourism.  However, until we get people living and experimenting in space, and seeing what they can do with extraterrestrial materials, we won’t know what the important economic breakthrough products will be.” 

Anita Gale (Aerospace Engineer)
  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Self Regulation, Emotion, and Mood.
    • Global skills: Health Literacy: be able to make appropriate personal mental and physical health decisions.
    • Big idea: Humans should not be modified for life in space versus humans should be made fit to live on other worlds.

“A crew to Mars will consist of a few well-trained astronauts that must work together for many years to overcome the physical and psychological challenges that will face them on this long journey.”

– Paul Lockhart (NASA astronaut).
  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Group Living Skills.
    • Global skills: 
      • Flexibility and Adaptability: learn how to adapt, how to assume a variety of roles.
      • Global Awareness: be able to understand other cultures, be able to address global issues, and be able to work with and learn from individuals with diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles.
    • Big idea: Exploration, progress, and genetics should not have a human and ethical cost versus humankind will always want to look for new worlds and places regardless of the cost.

“I think it’s a dangerous delusion to think that we’ll escape the world’s problems by going somewhere else. There’s no planet B for all the risk-averse people, so I think there will be adventurers who will, by the end of the century perhaps, be living on Mars and maybe in other places. But any life which spreads beyond Mars, beyond our solar system, will not be human. It will be some post-human life, possibly electronic life, possibly almost immortal, and therefore not deterred by long journeys to the stars. But it will not be human beings who do these things.”

Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal, UK)
  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Teamwork Skills.
    • Global skills: 
      • Initiative and Self-Direction: take the lead in a situation and manage time.
      • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills: learn when to listen and when to speak and be able to work in a multicultural environment, respect differences, and be open-minded to other cultures.
    • Big idea: Space colonies versus decolonization.

“Spaceflight does, and in the future, will require a wide variety of skills. Future long-duration space flights, such as those to Mars, will require astronauts that possess many different skills such as emergency medical, communications, computer, navigation, dentistry, basic plumbing, electrical and mechanical repair, and psychology.”

Paul Lockhart (NASA astronaut).
  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Leadership skills.
    • Global skills:
      • Leadership and Responsibility: be able to take on leadership roles in a variety of situations.
      • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills: learn when to listen and when to speak and be able to work in a multicultural environment, respect differences, and be open-minded.
    • Big idea: Privilege versus inclusive opportunities.

“We who entered industry between about 1972 and 1977 were more the “pioneers” — not the first to explore the territory, but the ones who settled in.  Women engineers now are simply engineers, with the same opportunities as the guys.”

Anita Gale (Aerospace Engineer)
  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Communication skills.
    • Global skills: Communication and Collaboration: know how to communicate and work collaboratively, not only with one’s peers, but also with students, adults, experts, and people from other cultures around the world.
    • Big idea: Healthy competition versus cooperation.

“Co-operation enables us to go further and dig deeper. At the same time, healthy competition is an important ingredient to drive people and organizations to break new ground and push the boundaries. Ultimately, space is our shared heritage and it’s important to maintain good relationships between different countries, to ensure that we avoid the doom scenario: militarization & weaponization of space.”

Kartik Kumar (Analog astronaut Austrian Space Forum 2015-2019)
  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Ability to Perform Under Stressful Circumstances.
    • Global skills:
      • Productivity and Accountability: balance time, set priorities, and work under pressure.
      • Health Literacy: be able to make appropriate personal mental and physical health decisions.
    • Big Idea: Emotional burnout versus productivity.

“I think that I’m generally open and agile in my thinking, which allows me to be responsive to things that change around me unexpectedly.”

Kartik Kumar (Analog astronaut Austrian Space Forum 2015-2019)
  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Motivation.
    • Global skills:
      • Productivity and Accountability: balance time, set priorities, and work under pressure.
      • Initiative and Self-Direction: take the lead in a situation, set goals and manage time.
    • Big Idea: Planning analog missions on Earth versus planning to save Earth.

“Analog simulation space missions are space missions that are conducted here on Earth. Since space is a pretty dangerous, hostile place for humans, we conduct analog missions here on Earth to ensure we understand all of the possible ways things could go wrong…We’ve gotten a lot better in understanding and predicting how real missions unfold, enabling us to achieve a high degree of success.”

Kartik Kumar (Analog astronaut Austrian Space Forum 2015-2019)
  1. Astronaut suitability proficiency: Conscientiousness.
    • Global skills: ICT (Information, Communications, and Technology) Literacy: understand how to apply technology, use various types of digital devices, and understand the ethical issues surrounding the use of information technology.
    • Big idea: Ethical use of technology versus economic viability.

“There is going to be a serious problem of governance, of the fact that new technology, particularly cyber and biotechnology, empowers even small groups of individuals by error or design, to cause consequences which could cascade over vast areas. We know already what cyber-attacks can do and there can also be the risk of misuse of biotech. So I think if we want to minimize the risk of people doing things like that, we are going to have to have a trade-off between  security and liberty and privacy.”

Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal, UK)

Can your students identify how they use these astronaut proficiencies in your subject? This could be an entry document to ignite interest. Educators need to embed the global skills in their lessons so we hope that by giving a different platform to explore these ideas as real-life examples from our world this new lens will energize your teaching. Making connections for students using creative perspectives can inspire them to view their learning in fun ways. They don’t have to find all the answers, generating more questions can be inspiring too!

Interviews and extracts (Harbord & Khan, 2020).

Global Skills content (Della Valle & Dotson, 2015).

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord and Sara Riaz Khan taught Design at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, with a focus on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness; from this teaching collaboration they established Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. One area of specialty is promoting the mission, vision and values within schools and corporate organizations to foster a supportive culture for all stakeholders. Recent projects include a PBL inquiry-based summer school project for SPARC, Fort Worth and STEM curriculum for DATTA (Design and Technologies Teachers Association, Victoria, Australia). They are available for professional development and will design programs to meet the specific needs of the client. Their publications include ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas 4 & 5’ (2020). -------- Dr Meredith J. Harbord Ed.D, has been an international educator for over 30 years with a particular interest in curriculum. She is an adjunct professor for State University of New York at Buffalo (IGPE), and Core 21 Education Services US. Meredith was originally a secondary art and craft teacher from Melbourne before teaching in Brunei Darussalam, U.K. and the Sultanate of Oman. Her experience in the International Baccalaureate system furthered her interest in middle school education. Meredith currently teaches graduate courses on Design Thinking, Maker Spaces and Game based learning together with Ethical Leadership and Navigating Gender in a Global world. Her doctoral dissertation focused on MYP design and through this work an interest developed to embed ethical dilemmas into design curriculum. Her educational philosophy advocates that learning experiences should be fun. --------- Sara Riaz Khan is an educator and artist; teaching MYP design she was inspired by the idea of ‘responsible’ design and its impact on student learning and also established the MYP Environmental Society. Sara’s interest in creative ways of thinking inspires her passion in making connections between curriculum and real world issues. Through this interest, she has developed a number of graphic devices to facilitate critical and creative thinking. As an arts educator, Sara has taught MYP art, been an artist-in-residence and held student workshops supporting diversity. She has exhibited internationally since 2004, focusing on our connection to nature, a common humanity and sustainability. Sara has developed community art projects as well as supported hospital outreach, disaster relief and literacy initiatives.

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