Friday, January 22, 2010

A NASA Mission to Iraq

Malcom Phelps stands near the Minister of Education’s Teacher Training Center in BaghdadA person who becomes part of the NASA team never knows where the journey may lead, from a spacecraft in orbit to an underwater habitat to Earth's extreme environments.

For Malcom Phelps, his experience with NASA led to Baghdad. There, in the war-torn capital of Iraq, he is part of a team involved in improving education infrastructure.

Specifically, Phelps is working with the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT. The team is a project of the United States government to work with Iraqi leaders to help rebuild the infrastructure in Iraq. Provincial Reconstruction Teams include members of the U.S. military and civilian specialists from the U.S. government who offer their expertise to assist local leaders. These teams have been key to improvements in security and governance in Iraq, and their success is now being replicated in Afghanistan.

Phelps, a NASA education official, is the senior education advisor for the Baghdad team. He joined NASA as the chief of education technology in 1991; he was promoted to associate director of the education division in 1995. He joined the Provincial Reconstruction Team in April 2008 and accepted a request to extend his tour for one year.

"I became interested in the team's work because of a desire to contribute to our country's effort to rebuild Iraq," Phelps said. "So many Americans made sacrifices, and I thought I could help. Many of our young soldiers have endured multiple combat tours, so the separation from family, the risk and the austerity have seemed like a relatively small sacrifice for me in comparison."

To join the team, Phelps contacted the U.S. Department of State, which accepted him as a member of the Provincial Reconstruction Team education team. When he was accepted, NASA, and its Office of Education, agreed to assign Phelps to work with the team in Iraq.

He said that he was proud to be representing the agency as a part of the PRT. "The NASA Education Office is therefore making a significant contribution to the U.S. reconstruction mission in Iraq," Phelps said. Education is an important focus for NASA, and domestically the agency works to attract and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines and to strengthen its and the nation's future workforce.

Students proudly raise the Iraqi flag during the reopening ceremony of the Huda Girls School in Tarmiya, IraqWhen Phelps arrived in Iraq, the emphasis was on school reconstruction and supplies. Working with the Iraqi Ministry of Education, he supervised more than $20 million worth of school refurbishments. More than 200 schools were returned to service after they had been damaged in combat. Schools were the favored bases for the violent insurgency. Restoring them has provided the population with a tangible sign of progress while engaging young people in productive activity where they are less susceptible to propaganda. Phelps is especially proud of the reopening of a girls' school in rural Tarmiya. When he arrived in 2008, it had just been cleared of explosives, and there was a 4-foot hole in the wall of the principal's office made by an artillery round. The school now educates 500 girls and is the pride of the town.

Since being asked to lead the education effort in Baghdad, where four of Iraq's major universities are located, Phelps' focus has been on higher education. The team has worked to support a laboratory at Iraq's major engineering school that was the scene of destruction and looting only two years ago. He also has arranged for the U.S. engineering accreditation board to travel to Baghdad for an assessment to guide further progress. While numerous other projects are underway, such as training for English teachers, he is especially proud of being asked by the U.S. Embassy to plan and implement a program for Iraqi faculty that is preparing 200 of them to advise students about how to study in the U.S. "The students who are educated in the U.S. will return to Iraq and contribute to economic development and a hopeful future," Phelps said. With the improved security, collaborations with U.S. universities are now possible, and it's even conceivable that some can be facilitated through NASA programs such as the Space Grant consortium, he said.

When people think about NASA, places like the moon and Mars come to mind far more commonly than Baghdad. But Malcom Phelps' contribution in education to the reconstruction team is just one more way that the agency is improving life here on Earth and helping people to reach for the stars.

On the Web:
Expedition 22 Crew Members Salute the Troops →
NASA Education

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