Astronaut George 'Pinky' Nelson on Teaching: Putting a Man on the Moon is Easier

September 16, 2009

George "Pinky" Nelson, who made three missions into space as a NASA astronaut before becoming a college professor, argues that teaching young people effectively is not rocket science-it's harder.The Western Washington University director of science, mathematics, and technology education will make his case, and provide some insights into how classrooms could be better, in a public talk at University of Puget Sound Thursday, Oct. 15. The free event, starting at 4 p.m., will be held in Thompson Hall, Room 175. It is co-sponsored by Puget Sound's School of Education and Thompson Hall Science and Mathematics Seminars.

"Myths and Truths About Teaching and Learning: It's Not Rocket Science, It's Harder" is Nelson's wry title for a lecture that depicts his fourth ambitious mission for his country: trying to improve the teaching of science. He summed up his forthcoming lecture saying, "We have made huge progress over the last 20 years in understanding how people learn and how to facilitate learning. Unfortunately, little of that new knowledge has made it into school or college classrooms yet. Actually improving teaching and learning, especially for those students who need it most, is not happening. It really was easier to send men to the moon. Still, it is a problem worthy of our best efforts and there are some hopeful signs."

Nelson is a senior staff member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former director of the association's Project 2061, which aims to reform K-12 science education in the United States. Early in his career, Nelson conducted astronomical research in New Mexico, Colorado, the Netherlands, and Germany. He was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1978, and flew missions on Challenger, Columbia, and Discovery. In May 2009, he was inducted in the Astronaut Hall of Fame at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After orbiting the earth more than 270 times over the course of a decade, Nelson returned to astronomy, becoming a professor at Western Washington University in 1989.

There he soon discovered that teaching was a science in itself, and one that deserved more of his time. He argues that the consequences of widespread science ignorance are profound for the nation, and he suggests we need to take a "systems engineering perspective" to propose, test, and implement real change in the classroom.

The public, teachers, aspiring teachers, campus members, and the press are all welcome to attend.

For directions and a map of the campus: Press-quality photos of George ‘Pinky' Nelson can be downloaded from: