The Space Program Is the Ultimate Problem-Based Learning
Putting students in authentic situations to develop solutions
The film First Man has recently come through theatres and tells the story of how Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. Of course, this event is the very ending of the movie. Prior to this are all of the things that had to come before this great accomplishment could be achieved. The most eye-opening thing for me was in seeing all of the failures of the mission. There is failure by Armstrong when he is test-piloting a plane. Failure as the astronauts are subjected to a device where they are spun in all sorts of directions and have to make it stable before passing out, often times throwing up at the end (that would not be good in a space helmet).
The tragedy of the crew of Apollo 1 dying in a fire was certainly not a success. There was the time Armstrong was testing the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle and had to eject moments before it would have killed him. It seems like there are far more failures than there are successes. But then that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? Like Armstrong himself says in the movie, “We need to fail. We need to fail down here, so we don’t fail up there.” A failure up there results in lives being lost. A failure down here is a learning opportunity.
That is the beauty of problem-solving. You get to make lots of attempts until you succeed. This goes for a scientist who is trying all sorts of different combinations until he comes upon the one that will make his experiment a success, to the kid playing video games and gets stuck on a challenging level, trying and failing over and over and over until finally moving on to the next level.
The space program, in general, was all about problem-solving. In the movie Hidden Figures, the people behind the scenes had to mathematically figure out how to get John Glenn into orbit and back down. They actually had to invent math in order to make this possible. All three of the main characters have to problem solve in order to succeed. Mary identifies a flaw in the heat shield. Dorothy sees that she and her