From here to Mars and back: Future-U across the USA

From here to Mars and back: Future-U across the USA

Jonathan Nalder from Future U tells us about his recent trip to the US to learn more about the k-12 edtech landscape.

From here to Mars and back: Future-U across the USA

Challenge: In a world where we need to solve problems as big as rapid job automation, climate change and going to Mars, what does learning in a nation as key as the USA look like right now?

As the automated, post-work era dawns, and a generation for whom humans on Mars is normal begin their schooling, one has to ask – how can any one person, group, or even nation hope to achieve all it now needs to? Thanks to members of the Future-U community, I have recently been opened up to the idea of ‘systems level thinking’ where true big picture collaboration at as high and broad a level as possible can present some ways forward. It was in this spirit that I set out to visit four US states recently to learn from and share with experts from all levels of education about how we can help learners dream up their own futures.


University Rover Challenge @ Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), Hanksville, Utah

The annual University Rover Challenge presents a supreme test for prospective engineers, as teams test robotic Rovers of their own design in a remote desert location that is a simulacra for Mars. This is also the only three days of the year when the Mars Desert Research Station is open for general members to visit and soak up the feeling of being in a place as close to Mars as is Earthly possible.

I attended to learn about where several of our Future-U experts lived while on a research mission at the MDRS, and to witness the power of a Mars simulation for myself as I further develop the training experience.

What I learnt? How agile the teams needed to be in the face of real life conditions. No matter the necessary months of planning before hand, any component could and did break – so in sandy, dusty conditions, zip ties had to be added to tires, or components rebuilt over-night. But, having experienced such high-pressure problem solving, its obvious that the teams would leave being way ahead of other learners in terms of coping with pressure and thinking on their feet – if and until they make it to the real red planet that is.

Mobile Learning Festival: iPadpalooza @ West Lake High, Austin, Texas

This classroom-focused conference has been organised for the last six years in Austin by teacher and mobile learning expert Carl Hooker and team, with up to 1300 teachers attending each time. What I found was indeed a festival as teachers who were giving up their summer break engaged with practical ideas around how the latest mobile technologies such as Sphero robotics and AR tools can benefit their learners.
I was privileged to add a layer of future-gazing to proceedings by walking people through how the First on Mars experience can start learners on a journey to gaining the Future Literacies they will need to thrive in the post-work era.

What I learnt? There IS a large group of teachers switched on to improving their practice, despite what we often hear to the contrary. But in spite of being an incredibly passionate group, only a very few had previously had the opportunity to lift their heads up high enough from their numerous day to day tasks to think through where curriculum and assessment were actually taking their students. This reinforced my motivation to make the story of the Future Literacies framework as accessible as possible.

New Media Consortium Summer Conference, @ Boston, Massachusetts

The New Media Consortium has been the home of expertise around helping Education adapt to the rise of new technologies since 1993. The Horizon Reports released each year which overview the technologies about to impact Education in 1-5 year timeframes have so far reached 195 countries. Each summer conference provides a chance to unpack these findings and hear how especially higher education is going in meeting future challenges.

One of my roles was to present a 3 hour session on the impact of automation technologies and how the new mindset of helping learners dream up their own futures might work.

What I learnt? The topics that generated the most discussion for these leaders and heads of organisations. This year AR/VR was the tech of most interest – but as far as wider themes went, it was engaging with the even further out horizon of up to 15 years that seemed to have reached a tipping point in attendees minds.

First Kids on Mars experience @ Daybreak Academy, Salt Lake City, Utah

Daybreak Academy is a K-4 elementary school that takes a whole-child approach and bases its curriculum on creativity and curiosity. With this focus already in place, it was the perfect site to premier the First on Mars experience in the USA with their year 2 and 3 classes. ‘First Kids on Mars’ takes learners to an imagined near-future Mars colony where their creativity, sense of community and thinking skills leads them to problem solve a solution for what Mars needs first if it is to thrive. The themes of the program such as playfulness, collaboration and storytelling come directly from the Future Literacies Framework and are embedded such that learners come away much more ready to think big picture and begin to dream up the jobs, vocations and teams that will help them thrive as 40-70% of todays jobs disappear due to automation.

What I learnt? Students are way more capable than we often give them credit for. In my past career as a teacher, trusting students to manage their own groups and problem solve behaviour, let alone solutions to conceptual problems like ‘what does a community need to thrive?’ was something I felt I rarely did. But, a well as the effort that ‘First on Mars’ makes to create a learning ‘flow’, it was amazing once again to see that even learners as young as seven could 8 times out of 10 resolve issues and as dream big as the program was asking them to.