Archive for September 7th, 2013

September 7, 2013

Sending Poems into Space: The Power of Free-choice Learning

by Melissa Harding


It’s funny, they named
Mars after the God of War
Have a look at Earth
-Benedict Smith, 1st place winner of the “Going to Mars” poetry competition. 

This November, more than 1,000 haikus will join MAVEN, the NASA spacecraft headed for Mars, as it rockets into outer space. MAVEN, short for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN missile, is an exploratory spacecraft on a mission to increase scientists’ understanding of the planet’s upper atmosphere.  The reason that it is being accompanied by poetry starts back in May; to make MAVEN more relevant to the public, the mission team at NASA hosted a poetry contest asking people all around the world to submit haiku that would be included on the spacecraft during its mission. If a mission to Mars does not seem like a natural partner for a poetry contest, just for a moment consider the vastness and beauty of outer space and think again. The original contest stipulated that only three winning poems would be sent up in the spacecraft; however, the response was so overwhelming – more than 12,530 poems were submitted – that the contest organizers decided to send over 1,100 of them into orbit.

This may seem like just a fun contest to promote space flight, and it certainly is, but it is also a rather significant exercise in exciting the general public about space flight and astronomy. It is definitely working; media outlets of all kinds have been covering this story since last spring. The MAVEN team has offered various ways to connect people of all ages to this project; they hosted a student art contest, poetry contest and a chance for participants to place their name and a message on the spacecraft itself. By contributing to any of these activities, a participant is making a personal connection to space exploration and the study of the solar system (and beyond!). It also connects them to the field of science and increases their scientific literacy.


These types of contests and activities are important in increasing scientific literacy because school is not where most Americans learn most of their science. According to “The 95 Percent Solution”,  a rather infamous 2010 report published by the journal American Scientist on out of school learning, non-school resources such as museums, zoos, national parks, and even outer space poetry contests are where most science learning occurs. This makes sense. Most Americans spend less than 5% of their lives in school, meaning that the 95% of their lives spent outside of the classroom is where the rest of their science knowledge is accumulated.

This knowledge comes from a variety of sources. They include: visiting informal learning institutions like museums, zoos and aquariums; engaging in science-minded hobbies like gardening and star gazing; watching science-based television programs; internet research; helping a child with science; being in nature; and even experiencing life events that demand increased information, such as a cancer diagnosis or an environmental crisis. Research shows that free-choice learning represents the greatest single contributor to adult knowledge. One example of the power of out of school learning was observed at the California Science Center, where researchers found that acquired knowledge not only stayed with visitors, but increased their conceptual understanding of science for two years or more after the experience. Another study, conducted by the NASA Night Sky Network, has found that amateur astronomers lacking any college-level astronomy education often knew more general astronomy than undergraduate astronomy majors.


This type of learning important for adults, but even more so for children. A 2009 report from the National Research Council found that not only do these experiences start a child’s long-term interest in science, but they can significantly increase scientific literacy in populations that are typically under-represented in science. There are some who believe that the “achievement gap” observed between children of affluent and under-served populations in school performance has more to do with the access that affluent children have to summer camp and museums than with anything happening in school itself.

This is, of course, controversial research. However, it is safe to say that free-choice learning experiences are fundamental to creating life-long learners. All this is not to diminish school science, but rather to understand how free-choice learning can enhance it; both types of learning work together to create a foundation for future interest in science and science careers.

People learn throughout their entire lives – both as children and as adults. Finding new ways to get them interested in science, especially through a multi-disciplinary approach, is essential to creating new avenues of learning. This goes back to the MAVEN poetry contest; not only are participants creating a bond with the MAVEN mission, they are creating an interest in outer space. Remember, what makes free-choice learning so effective is that it is fun. While it may seem silly to send haiku to Mars, it is definitely fun.

To read more the entire report, “The 95 Percent Solution”, you can download a copy of the article here.

To learn more about informal science education and free-choice learning, check out the Center for Advancement of Informal Science.

Are you an informal science educator? Check out the CAISE resource page for more research on out of school learning.

The above images of Mars and the MAVEN spacecraft are courtesy of NASA and the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.


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