Confession time: I am a bit of a spaceflight junkie. I am fascinated by stories of the Mercury 7, and I love learning about the accomplishments of Apollo-era engineers and mathematicians. I obsess a bit over the recent progress of SpaceX in reusable rocket technology and exciting NASA missions like OSIRIS-REx (besides having an awesome acronym, they landed on an asteroid and shot it with a compressed air gun so they could bring a sample back to Earth!). 

Of course, I have been following the Mars 2020 mission from inception through the February 2021 touchdown in Jezero Crater. I dropped all of my work to watch the live-feed from JPL during entry, decent, and landing. This is most people’s favorite moment, when a room full of nervous engineering geeks lets loose a joyous outburst after their meticulous planning pays off. This time around, we were treated to a beautifully produced video of the infamous “seven minutes of terror.” It showed multiple angles of the drama from the violent atmospheric entry through the gentle touchdown of the Perseverance Rover on Martian soil. The above picture is my favorite from the sequence (complements of NASA/JPL-Caltech).

The success of this mission is a testament to human ingenuity, but even more than that, it is a testament to teamwork and problem solving. Human spaceflight is a communal enterprise. There is no single breakthrough or insight that makes it possible. A team of people has to make it work. In fact, it is a team of teams, each one solving individual problems. One of the most compelling things about the movie Apollo 13 was the story of all the teams working to solve problems and bring the astronauts home safely. In recent years, we have heard stories of other unsung heroes from the Apollo era, particularly the black female computers and engineers like Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson (if you haven’t read Hidden Figures, check it out). Thousands of people stand behind figureheads like John Glen, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, and Victor Glover.

One of the most remarkable things about the Mars 2020 mission is that it came to a crescendo during a pandemic. The window for launching missions to Mars only comes about once every two years, so the team could not simply put everything on hold. They had to persevere (hence, the name of the rover). Part of their problem solving involved how to work together effectively in the midst of strict protocols. In the midst of their ground-breaking work, they had to innovate the very ways in which they went about that work. It sounds like a group challenge course at camp (with the stakes considerably higher)!

These are valuable lessons during this pandemic. Remember that the people who work at NASA and JPL are among the smartest in the world. But it is not just about knowing the right stuff. They push and challenge one another, and they thrive when they encounter adversity.

The pandemic has forced tremendous shifts in our educational systems, moving the bulk of learning online. This forces a content-centered approach, while sacrificing some of the most important aspects of learning, chief among them group problem solving. This is more than about preparing future aerospace engineers and astronauts to land on Mars. Every major problem we face here on Earth requires group problem solving: global climate change, world hunger, racial inequality, political destabilization, health crises, and the list goes on.

One of the main reasons I am such an avid promoter of summer camp is its proven value for education. It is a fundamental characteristic that camp is participatory. Camp provides a controlled space for group interaction and creative problem solving. Participants learn to get along by living together and working alongside one another for days at a time. Even when everyone seems to be getting along just fine, we problematize these relationships through novel activities and circumstances. Camps intentionally challenge participants through things like wilderness camping, canoeing, and group challenge courses. They learn the need to work together to accomplish certain tasks, and they also find their own voices and the importance of contributing their unique talents to the group.

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Celebrating touchdown at JPL! Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Camp is so much more than fun and games. Talk to participants, and you will find that the “fun” comes through being together with others, forging friendships, and accomplishing new things together. Watching those JPL engineering geeks celebrate after the touchdown of Perseverance makes it look like a ton of fun. These exuberant moments are born out of collaboration, problem solving, and (yes) perseverance. They rejoice because they accomplished something difficult together. I marvel at how similar their celebration looks to a group of campers who just completed a particularly difficult challenge course element after overcoming repeated failures and unexpected adversity. It may seem a long way from lifting a friend through the spiderweb of a camp challenge course to lowering a rover from a sky crane on another planet, but one is not possible without the other. 

If we want our children to one day tackle the complex problems of this world, we need places that teach skills of intense group building and problem solving. Cheers to our friends at JPL for another amazing accomplishment and for inspiring millions of future problem solvers.

Now, have you signed your child up for camp yet?

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