Chris Hadfield knows all about how fast things can move. As the commander of the International Space Station, he travelled almost 100 million kilometres while completing 2,336 orbits of Earth. Now he hopes that the movement of information can bring the best STEM teaching and resources to students in all parts of Canada.
“With high-speed communications and interconnectivity, we have a real opportunity to get education into the hands and minds of kids right across the country,” says Hadfield.
“The first telegraph had just crossed the Atlantic when Canada was formed. Now the transmission of information is almost instantaneous. That’s an advantage for a country with a widely-spread population to improve education, including STEM education.”
That’s just one underpinning of a successful education system, Hadfield says. The retired astronaut has spoken at hundreds of schools across Canada. He’s impressed with the quality of education, but realizes that there are significant gaps. For instance, too many students still deal will illiteracy, and the problem is especially acute in remote and northern parts of the country.
Earlier this year, Hadfield helped to create a new charitable body called the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation. Its mission is to ensure that all Canadian children are skilled, confident readers by the time they complete grade school. That’s something that will unlock opportunities in all areas.
“I’m involved in a literacy foundation because the basis of all scientific literacy is just plain literacy,” he says.
To improve education, Hadfield says we need to fully grasp student performance and needs.
“What’s the desired level of literacy, and how do you do a uniformed measurement of whatever subset you want to have, whether science, technology, engineering, math, or fundamental reading and writing? That definitely needs addressing, getting an accurate measure of our current levels.”
Once we have a true picture of our levels of capability, Hadfield says we can explore what programs can best meet student requirements, whether provided by the formal school system or through extracurricular activities.
He says research can also illuminate the motivations for students to be involved in education beyond the daily curriculum. In reflecting on his own education, Hadfield recognizes that he was exposed to science in many ways.
“In the STEM subjects I’m well-grounded, but only part of that came through the straight, dogmatic schooling system. A lot came from other influences. Programs like Let’s Talk Science are worthwhile. We can’t expect a fundamental, one-sized program to address individual student needs.”
The pace of technology is only accelerating, says Hadfield. Just as it’s affecting society and the jobs of the future, it’s also changing what and how we teach. Ensuring a population that is highly literate overall – and STEM-literate – is a key to our continued economic and social well-being. That requires a joint effort from educators, parents, policy-makers and not-for-profits.
“We’re extremely well-positioned as a country to be competitive for the next 50 years. But at no moment can we just sit and wait for someone else to do it,” says Hadfield.