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NASA scientist calls for changes to Caribbean education

A Caribbean-born scientist at the USA’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Camille Alleyne-Waldron hopes science education in the region can be transformed to be more hands-on and experience-oriented.

“There is need for an action-oriented curriculum that integrates entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership and a social, global awareness,” the Trinidad aerospace engineer told Research Caribbean.

The curriculum should integrate the natural sciences and earth and space sciences to allow students to see how concepts are applied in the real world, said Alleyne-Waldron, who currently works at NASA’s primary spacecraft design laboratory, the Johnson Space Center, in Houston.

Physics, chemistry and biology cannot be isolated from each other, she explained. Physics makes concepts in chemistry and or biology understandable, and vice-versa. The sciences also sometimes require the knowledge of algebra and geometry.

“My experience in secondary school with science was that it was very theoretical and abstract and very little practical applications or hands on experiments,’’ the pilot recalled.

‘‘To this day, I love organic chemistry and can recall many concepts because I had a teacher who was passionate about the subject. On the other hand, I had the total opposite experience of physics at O(rdinary) levels (the secondary school qualification examination) because my teacher’s style was quite ineffective,’’ said Alleyne-Waldron, who manages the testing of all the subsystems in the crew capsule for the proposed human space vehicle.

‘‘Despite these shortcomings, I persevered because of my drive, ambition, determination and my commitment to living life doing the things I am passionate about. It is that formula that provided me the career opportunities that I have had.”

Alleyne-Waldron is recognised as the region’s first woman in space science in a new publication, Caribbean Women Icons in Science, Technology and Innovation, compiled by the National Institute of Research, Science and Technology (NIHERST).

She described NIHERST’s work in science, technology and innovation and science popularisation as “ground-breaking and visionary”.

“They exhibit incredible leadership in the face of challenges; they keep on going because of their commitment to making a difference in the lives of all Caribbean people.”

Alleyne-Waldron participated in the annual Caribbean Youth Science Forum of the Trinidad-based NIHERST this month.

“Being able to inspire the youth and open their minds up to something greater than themselves is extraordinary,” she told Research Caribbean.

She said some people had been exposed to space science for the first time at the Caribbean Youth Science Forum. Others, who had earlier felt that pursuing studies in space science was too remote from reality, had changed their mind.

However, Alleyne-Waldron revealed, the Caribbean has itself had a tremendous influence on her decision to leave the American military’s Missile Defence Agency and the Navy to work on systems vital to the safe flight of the space shuttles.

“I am able to extend our education projects to the global student population. I am able to think and push beyond the boundaries and what is the norm,’’ she argued.

She said that her Caribbean upbringing also influenced her non-governmental organisation, the Brightest Stars Foundation, which is trying to set up a space and science academy for girls in Kenya.

She said she spent six months on the International Space Station (ISS) a space laboratory that orbits the earth, was launched in 1998 by five partner space agencies from the US, Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe.

She is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Ninety-Nines, an international organisation of women pilots, among many other bodies.