Last year’s Artemis 1 mission was a big success for NASA and for the United States, moving us closer to returning to the moon after more than half a century. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, meantime, recently conducted the first flight test of its massive Starship launch vehicle, which it hopes one day will carry humans to Mars. But another crucial race is taking place back on Earth: developing the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to train the next generation of scientists, explorers, and innovators.

A good place to start is with two educational initiatives, Astra Nova and Synthesis. Both were derived from the Ad Astra experimental school, founded by Musk and primarily attended by children of SpaceX employees. Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) ditched both grade levels and traditional topics to focus more on science and technology, critical thinking skills, problem solving, and ethics—all with the aim of inspiring an eagerness to learn. According to its founders, Musk’s only instruction to them was to “make it great.”

Housed within SpaceX facilities, Ad Astra closed in 2020 in the early stages of the pandemic as education, and the world at large, shifted to remote learning and working. The concept lives on, however, in its two successors (neither of which has any affiliation with Musk), beginning with Astra Nova, a full-time school. Unlike Ad Astra, Astra Nova is entirely online and has approximately 50 full-time and 125 part-time students. The lack of rigid, traditional courses and structure allows the school to be agile and iterative, helping students explore subjects from a broad list of STEM topics critical to future U.S. leadership in science and technology.

Astra Nova centers its curriculum around “Conundrums” designed to get students thinking critically about problems—and to keep them engaged online, where wavering attention spans and Zoom fatigue have become major problems. This term, course options range from “Mind, Consciousness, and AI” and “Python Beginner” to “Chemistry of Cooking” and “Astrogeology.” The admissions process includes solving a Conundrum and attendance at a “demo day,” a preview of what students can expect at Astra Nova, as well as a family interview. Full-time Astra Nova students spend 20 hours in class per week, while part-time students spend either two or four hours. Full-time tuition is $33,500, though the school says that 33 percent of full-time and 6 percent of part-time families receive tuition assistance.

Synthesis, meanwhile, was developed from one particular class at Ad Astra, in which students would engage in simulations, games, and challenges, aiming to make learning both engaging and rewarding. Joshua Dahn, cofounder of Ad Astra, and Chrisman Frank, an engineer at education technology company ClassDojo, spun Synthesis off into a standalone platform, scaling up the concept and aiming to attract many more students, beyond those of SpaceX employees. Entirely part-time and online, Synthesis offers classes on weekday afternoons or Saturday mornings. It is a “game-based curriculum” that prioritizes collaboration, observation, and problem-solving with games and real-world issues, like its namesake class in Ad Astra. And like Astra Nova, no separation is made by age. Frank, now Synthesis’s CEO, described the program as tying together the student educational experience: “You have your other subjects, but Synthesis is like ‘now you’re making all this stuff work together.’” Though Synthesis still requires an admissions process, Dahn and Frank hope to scale up the concept to open doors to all.

Astra Nova, then, is essentially a full-time, virtual version of Ad Astra with an application process open to the public, while Synthesis is supplemental education for students enrolled in traditional schools, aimed at bringing the curriculum of the old Synthesis class to a much larger student body.

Venture capitalists have taken note of these programs. Last year, Synthesis raised $12 million in a round led by Balaji Srinivasan and Amjad Masad. The model’s “fundamental concept is teaching kids how to collaboratively work with information like adults do,” wrote Srinivasan. In February, O’Shaughnessy Ventures announced an investment in Synthesis, describing the effort as “the future of education.” Funders are seeing this educational model not only as promising for young people and the nation but also as scalable and profitable.

This new approach to education could offer inspiration to older STEM programs like those at NASA, which are more traditional. At the space agency, initiatives at the Office of STEM Engagement (OSTEM) fall into several categories, including grants to academia and students for space research, internships, and fellowships; research-focused partnerships that aim at improving a state's or region’s R&D capacity and competitiveness; grants to minority-serving institutions; and programs aimed at K-12 students (Next Gen STEM). Outside OSTEM, NASA also runs a Science Activation program, which brings together learners of all ages with NASA scientists and experts. Congress has increased appropriations for NASA’s OSTEM programs in recent years, but the agency has no room for full-time schools in its budget.

The federal government’s STEM initiatives have suffered from duplication and lack of direction. In 2010, Washington spent more than $3 billion on STEM initiatives; the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 83 percent of the 209 programs had some overlap. These issues have persisted. In 2018, the GAO found that significant overlap remained, even as the number of programs had been reduced. More crucially, the Committee on STEM Education (formed in 2011 to coordinate federal STEM efforts) had “not reviewed programs’ performance assessments, as its authorizing charter mandates, nor [had] it documented those assessments in its inventory, as required by law.” The committee’s next five-year plan, soon due, would present an excellent opportunity to address these problems.

NASA should consider taking a small step forward in STEM education by supporting the Astra Nova and Synthesis model, perhaps by collaborating with them. NASA could procure services from Astra Nova, as it does with SpaceX crew transport to the International Space Station. A small carve-out of NASA’s existing STEM education budget could go toward funding full scholarships for children selected through a competitive application process to attend Astra Nova; or Astra Nova could include in its curriculum in-person visits to the Kennedy Space Center or NASA research centers.

Precedent exists for such a collaboration. Many initiatives within federal agencies, like the Defense Innovation Unit, have aimed at streamlining governmental efforts to invest in and support emerging technologies and companies and to attract private-sector talent. Such programs are often nimbler than traditional efforts.

Alternatively, with a more ambitious budget, NASA could start a school based on principles like those of Astra Nova and Synthesis. These schools should be focused on giving the brightest students the tools, training, and critical-thinking skills necessary to address the technological challenges of our time—with scholarships and a tuition structure aimed at expanding access to a full-time school like Astra Nova, and providing all Americans with an equal opportunity to attend a program like Synthesis, which is exactly what its founders intend.

To be clear, this educational model is not meant to replace traditional education nationwide. Astra Nova, for example, is open only to students aged ten to 14; at Synthesis, it is eight to 14. And as the pandemic made clear, distance learning has presented many challenges—both with education and socialization. But as geopolitical competitors increase investments and churn out more STEM graduates, the U.S. must expand its own investments to keep pace.

These new STEM programs would have an impact beyond the students enrolled in them. Their content, videos, and lesson plans could also be used in traditional schools, or even by individuals at home. Many of Astra Nova’s Conundrums, for example, have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people on video-sharing platforms. The programs could also see spillover effects, as other agencies and organizations see the model in action and consider adopting it in their own STEM efforts. Coding, for example, could become a part of traditional classroom instruction.

During the Space Race with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, NASA was bold rather than cautious. Now, even with tightening budgets but amid growing competition with China, NASA should return to its daring roots. Yes, Astra Nova and Synthesis are experimental and largely unproven. But that’s exactly why policymakers should be studying them in hopes of getting a better return on investment from the NASA STEM budget.

Recounting his tour of the original Ad Astra school in 2016, Synthesis CEO Chrisman Frank recalls observing that “the spark of curiosity and agency so often dulled by our industrial education system still burned bright with these kids. . . . it was clear the kids relished the challenge.” We may not be able to spend as lavishly as we did in the 1960s, but we can still “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!

Photo: mixetto/iStock


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