Upfront - Renaissance Learners

The future of education is in creating moments of inspiration for students of all ages

TEDxNASA Program

Inspiration is the key to opening doors for all our children to a world of learning, while keeping America competitive in both the high-tech and low-tech jobs of the 21st century.

As a founder and director of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, I’ve been interested in inspiration in education for quite some time. We started out offering classes only for adults, but after just a year of life, several smart and motivated teens begged us to let them into some of our fiction writing classes. They did very well and held their own with the adults, but, we soon realized that we needed to create a program geared just for teen writers, and we did. Today, we serve more than 50 teens per session, and we keep on growing.

These teen writers give up their Saturdays because they’ve been inspired to learn and create. As they have taken classes and worked on their craft, many of them have become excellent writers of fiction and poetry as well as great comic improvisers. Some of them want to be writers when they start careers, but some are just interested in learning. The key is that inspiration propels them to take the risk of learning something new and dares them to imagine a future they create themselves.

A few months ago, the good folks at TEDxNASA contacted me about their event TEDxYouth@NASA, which was held Nov.19 in conjunction with TEDxYouthDay.
TEDxNASA students
Those who’ve read these columns know that TEDxNASA has been one of the best and most vital conferences in our region, focusing on creativity and spreading great ideas that can change the world. This event for youth was designed to inspire teenagers. As a NASA program, they’re very interested in encouraging students to pursue careers in the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. But the broader theme of the most recent event was “Get Connected,” focusing on the interdisciplinary connections between all the fields—how writing applies to research; how innovation applies to engineering as well as to music; how creativity, no matter the field, is thought infused with passion.

They asked if our students would be interested in attending the conference, and I jumped at the chance (as did our students).

They also asked if anyone would like to speak. Four of our students spent several months writing, refining and rehearsing five-minute presentations they gave to the live audience of hundreds and the online audience of hundreds of thousands.

Luke Iha, 17, spoke about un-schooling, an alternative course of high school study he is undertaking with his mother’s supervision. It allows him to study many disciplines while still achieving mastery of the required subject matter. Rhiannon Harvey, 15, spoke about her travels on a sailboat around the world and how that led her to “leave a clean wake” both environmentally and emotionally.

Tessa Solee, 15, created a Declaration of Creative Independence that burst with the desire for society to embrace and foster the importance of following one’s inspiration. And Austin Sens, 15, spoke about the miraculous nature of music and how by studying and teaching it, he has seen his creativity and confidence soar.

TEDxNASA fosters creativityA few notorious and short-sighted NASA critics (like NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing) have blasted TEDxYouth@NASA for including any speaker or presentation that was not specifically about science or engineering.

That’s idiotic. It’s obvious we’re not doing enough to encourage careers in math and science. But, part of the problem is that we’ve spent several decades separating one kind of learning from another and dividing one kind of inspiration from the other, because of a false belief that science and the arts aren’t connected.

All learning is connected, and inspiration in one field often leads to creation in another.

The future of education is in encouraging Renaissance Learners—students of all ages that are interested in many different aspects of nature. Leonardo da Vinci, an original Renaissance Man and perhaps the greatest artist of all time, created masterworks like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. But he was also a scientist, mathematician and engineer whose theories and drawings arguably made him the father of flight. NASA owes a lot to an artist. And NASA Langley, with its TEDxNASA and TEDxYouth@ NASA programs, wisely understands that creation and innovation in the arts and in the sciences both find their source in the well of inspired learning.

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