![blog post photo]
]Leland Melvin, NASA’s new Associate Administrator for Education, aboard Atlantis during a November 2009 mission. Photo Credit/NASA
On Oct. 12, NASA astronaut Leland Melvin took on a new space agency assignment, Associate Administrator for Education, a position seemingly unrelated to his professional background as a space explorer, engineer and one time NFL prospect.
Consider instead, that Leland, an African-American, is embarking on an assignment as vital to the nation’s future as the astronauts assigned to NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.
Sure, it’s unlikely the 46-year-old, two-time shuttle veteran will stroll across the moon, collect rocks from an asteroid or embark on a voyage to Mars. But that pass from Cowboy’s quarterback Danny White that escaped his grasp a quarter of a century ago because of an untimely hamstring injury may well have set him on a course that inspires some bright youngsters — somewhere — to become the next Alan Shepard, John Glenn, or Neil Armstrong.
When NASA was founded 52-years ago, the United States faced a capable and determined adversary in the former Soviet Union, a Communist super power armed with nuclear weapons.
Today the global landscape is much different. We face new adversaries, perhaps no less daunting. One of them is a failure to knuckle down in the classroom.
**A Recent Flurry of Warnings**
On Sept. 23, the National Academy of Sciences issued an update of its 2005 landmark study, _Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future_. The update suggested the U.S. had done little in the past five years to improve its ability to educate its youngest citizens adequately in the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This year’s update, entitled _Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, _warned that our national security and future economic prosperity are at peril because of a lagging performance in the STEM disciplines.
According to the update, the U.S. ranks eleventh globally in the fraction of young workers with a high school diploma. Our 17-year-olds rank 21st in science achievement.
While steeped in economic adversity, the U.S. ranks 27th worldwide in college graduates who study science and engineering, and 48th in the quality of the math and science education offered students in K through 12.
_Category 5_ was followed five days later by a second report from the NAS, _Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads_.
This time, the National Academies turned the spotlight on the nation’s African-Americans, American Indians and Hispanics as a much overlooked talent pool. The NAS urged the nation’s policy makers and educators to better embrace the underrepresented as a part of a sustained commitment to ensure the United States has adequate numbers of engineers and scientists as a foundation for future prosperity.
**No Stranger to the Issue**
Melvin was raised in Lynchburg, VA., by school teacher parents who were well versed in the educational issue long before the NAS sounded alarm bells. In 1986, Melvin graduated from the University of Richmond with a degree in chemistry. As an Academic All-American, he was also an NFL prospect as a speedy wide receiver.
During a tryout with the Lions, Melvin re-aggravated a hamstring injury. Released, he moved on to Dallas, where he was also cut by the Cowboys.
Melvin left for graduate school at the University of Virginia, where he again received an invitation from the Cowboys. While still warming up on the practice field, Coach Tom Laundry signaled White to aim for the end zone with a pass and Melvin in full pursuit. His hamstring was not up to the shock.
Fortunately, Melvin had has graduate studies to fall back on and a job at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Equipped with a Master’s degree in materials science, Melvin joined NASA as a full-time researcher in 1989. Thanks to the encouragement of co-workers, Leland applied and was accepted to the Astronaut Corps in 1998.
He’s flown twice to the International Space Station as a shuttle astronaut. Always a fixture in NASA’s educational outreach, Melvin took a more formal role in April, when he joined the agency’s Office of Education to work on educational strategy. The assignment included the Summer of Innovation, an initiative aimed at improving STEM education among middle school students by putting them in touch with science and engineering professionals.
During a 2007 interview, Melvin said he offers this advice to students who are all too often convinced the path to success is through sports or entertainment:
“While you study the plays and try to be the best ballplayer you can, do the grades the same way. You can, if you put your mind to it,” said Melvin. “Lots of times, they don’t believe you,” he said, “unless you have walked the walk.”
Melvin has, and it’s time to listen up.
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