Monday, November 30, 2009

Making It Happen: NASA and NAPS

Paying for the NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences (NAPS) program I have proposed must be done with serious consideration given to three realities that stand in direct opposition to each other: 1) the academic needs of Talented and Gifted (TAG) students who excel in mathematics and the sciences are generally not acknowledged by U.S. taxpayers, because the general sentiment is that “smart” kids can get by in our public schools without any additional funding for merit-based programs that might result in educational advantages for the top-end few; 2) the U.S. is falling behind in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) expertise when compared to the rest of the world, especially in public schools classroom learning as measured by standardized tests; and 3) U.S. industrial companies, military forces, and intelligence agencies, and the space exploration of NASA must depend on the talents of U.S. citizens who are tremendously skilled and highly educated in STEM, especially regarding top secret “classified” developments that pertain to national security and/or to national defense.

Unfortunately, #1 trumps #2 and #3 in every case in which the outcome is dependent on a vote of the people. Americans are a people who will help the disadvantaged up to mediocre standing while simultaneously dragging the advantaged down to mediocre standing, even when doing the latter is not in their long term self-interest. That strange and peculiar trait seems to battle strongly against anything that smacks of stratified learning tracks, especially if there is a high-end fast track that in any way glorifies those whose talents and skills are not expressed in athletic competitions. In all of this, we are a stupid people, and we can no longer afford that stupidity — even if it means becoming un-American by saying “Yes” to an intellectual meritocracy that we collectively nurture starting no later than the seventh grade.

Establishing NAPS nationwide is a starting point that must be accomplished by whatever means necessary. It appalls me that many who should support my proposal do not, and that they justify their lack of support most ungenerously: from patronizing notions that value the humanities over the sciences as a supposed matter-of-fact, through scary statements that high school’s overriding purpose is forced socialization to the norm, to depressing pronouncements that “smart” kids do not need — nor do they deserve — special considerations of any sort. If it is left to the masses, NAPS will never happen. So the implementation strategy must go stealth regarding funding, and live by the crazy truth that a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse; in other words, just do it!

Do not go through local public school boards and public school district superintendents seeking support and approval. You will fail if you do so. Do not go through every state’s department of education hierarchy and every state’s legislature seeking support and approval. You will fail if you do so. Do not go through the U.S. Congress seeking support and approval. You will fail if you do so. The simple idea that is NAPS is too complicated for all except those who can see its beauty and its simplicity plainly at first sight. If you have to be convinced that NAPS is a good idea, you will never be convinced. Those who will not need convincing are these: the genius young people who score at the 99th percentile in mathematics and the sciences and who enjoy mathematics and the sciences, and the parents of those young people; Pentagon-based generals and admirals; the highest ranking personnel in the various U.S. intelligence agencies; and the highest ranking personnel at NASA.

Going stealth is as simple as this: entirely federally fund and entirely oversight manage NAPS through the public auspices of NASA with behind-the-scenes shared funding and governance coming from both the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). According to my proposal, the federal funding portion of the NAPS program is $61.2 million per year. NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2009 is $17.6 billion. DoD’s budget for fiscal year 2010 is $533.8 billion. The National Intelligence Program (NIP) spent $49.8 billion in fiscal year 2009 according to official documents (Oct 30, 2009), though the DNI, Dennis Blair, recently stated publicly “we’re talking about the very important business of a blueprint to run this 200,000-person, $75 billion national enterprise in intelligence …” (Sep 15, 2009). Most of the official NIP budget is hidden in the DoD budget, though some of it hides elsewhere; the details of the NIP budget are top-secret “classified” information that exists outside of any public scrutiny. NASA, the DoD, and the DNI have considerable shared interests (for example, spy satellites), so the “contract” work certainly boosts NASA’s $17.6 billion cash flow, perhaps significantly.

The point being this: $61.2 million split three ways between NASA, the DoD, and the sixteen U.S. government and military agencies that answer to the DNI make the NAPS annual federal budget of $61.2 million turn into invisible pocket change that no one will argue about because no one will be able to see it. That is going stealth, and that is a good thing in this case.

The NAPS program implementation then becomes this simple: NASA selects the 150 public research universities it wants to work with, and offers its deal to them and the local public school districts that would be involved at each NAPS site. With the backing of the U.S. government, NASA creates a high school diploma for the NAPS program that would be universally accepted by American colleges and universities. Doing this would bypass any odd high school graduation requirements that might exist in some states. The public identity of the program would be this: NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences is a nationwide effort federally funded and managed by NASA to educate future generations of scientists and engineers to serve the national interests of the United States of America.

Is there a downside to this paying scheme? No. Is there a trade-off? Yes.

Because each of the 150 NAPS academies will likely draw its students from many different public school districts and each NAPS will therefore float outside the control and jurisdiction of just one school district, NASA should establish itself as the de facto public school district equivalent for the entire NAPS program, meaning: NASA should take complete operational control of the NAPS program, and should leave no local program design control of any sort to parent groups, school boards, school district administrators, or the NAPS host universities. To accomplish this, the NAPS “high school” teachers must be NASA employees, and the entire NAPS curriculum must be NASA-controlled.

The NAPS curriculum I have proposed is simple and straightforward, and it is driven exclusively by the standard university prerequisite stream for mathematics and the physical sciences, which — when accomplished — fulfills the core math and science course requirements of any university-level laboratory science major (including the biology major). If anything, NASA might simplify my proposed curriculum in some way, though there is nothing to simplify that I can see. With few exceptions, NAPS will teach only select Advanced Placement courses (which are standardized nationwide) while living as a parasite on the standard undergraduate course offerings in mathematics and the physical sciences found at all public research universities in the U.S., and the subject matter and teaching of the university courses taken by NAPS students will not be tampered with or in any way controlled by NASA at all.

Paranoid people will rightly observe that the U.S. government will have direct free access to NAPS student transcripts through NASA, and that includes access given to the DoD and the various NIP agencies if they partner in funding NAPS. This does not in any way bother me, but it might bother some. To those “some” who are bothered, my advice is simple: do not enroll your child in NAPS under any circumstance. NAPS is an extraordinary optional educational opportunity that will only be available to the very few who qualify. If NASA, the DoD, and the DNI partner in making NAPS happen, then they deserve the access to student transcripts that they will have.

NAPS fulfills the government obligation to provide free public education through the twelfth grade for its students, but it in no way contractually obligates its graduates to ever work for the U.S. government in any capacity at all for any length of time. A NAPS graduate is entirely free to do whatever he/she wants to do with the rest of his/her life. That stated, it will certainly be the case that many NAPS graduates will be recruited by the U.S. government for employment and/or higher education opportunities that might have significant contractual obligations attached (for example, U.S. military academy appointments). But other private industry recruitments and also significant university scholarship offers will certainly come to many NAPS graduates. The plain fact of the matter is this: most NAPS graduates will be academically among “The Top One Percent” of all U.S. high school graduates in any given year; they will be in high demand by many, including the whole assortment of U.S. government agencies and departments.

In the end, many NAPS graduates will maintain their dream to become NASA employees, and they will freely choose to follow NASA’s guidance in their higher education choices in their continuing effort to make that dream happen. If NASA adopts this proposal, it will certainly have the inside track on finding and developing the very best young minds in America to meet the agency's ongoing need to remain on the cutting edge of new space technologies. Many young geniuses are naturally drawn to the exciting work that NASA does, and NASA should invite those young geniuses into its fold by becoming the U.S. government agency that funds and manages the NAPS program.

Steven A. Sylwester
November 22, 2009


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