Indonesia's national motto is "Unity in diversity."
Among ways of putting so broad a concept into perspective, few may be more effective than observing a meeting of teenage minds. When teenagers get together, no two may be exactly alike, but neither are they radically different, as a distance-learning event linking teens in Palmdale, Calif., and Jakarta, Indonesia, recently demonstrated.
It was 6 p.m. in California and 8 a.m., the beginning of the school day, at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, where the Indonesian students were gathered. Food, music, hobbies and, in the case of these students, robotics quickly united the diverse group of American and Islamic high schoolers.
Theme parks headed the leisure-time A-list on both sides of the link-up. Everybody was desperate to have a car and be free to drive it – to school, around town, with friends. On-line video gaming, cell phones, social networking, pizza, even slurpees – it was all there. But for tofu being missing from the Americans' list of preferred foods, little came to light in two hours of exchange that significantly separated the daily lives of the North Americans from those of the Southeast Asians.
That was exactly what organizers had envisioned. The event was a project of the Office of Education at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, the Department of Education and the White House. It was part of an Obama administration initiative aimed at bridging the too-often-imagined gaps between western and Islamic cultures and expanding opportunities for scientific collaboration among nations. Organizers are looking forward to building on the initial event's success with follow-on activities in which the same students collaborate on a robot.
"The president and NASA are interested in eliminating artificial barriers" through such activities as the interactive video event, said John O'Shea, director of Dryden's Strategic Communications office, of which the education office is part.
"We're interested in a growth of understanding among cultures. Activities like robotics and this event create excitement and learning, learning that fosters progress – progress from which new partnerships emerge and new technologies are developed."
The American side of the exchange took place at the AERO Institute in Palmdale. With help in Jakarta from the U.S. embassy's assistant cultural attaché for youth outreach, Arend Zwartjes, Dryden's Distance Learning Network director David Alexander guided local students seated in front of a monitor that displayed their Indonesian counterparts.
The Indonesian students had been selected from schools in the area and gathered at the embassy, where distance-learning technology there allowed them to view the Americans. The local group comprised members of the Dryden-supported FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – robotics teams from Antelope Valley, Tehachapi and Lancaster high schools. The FIRST organization was established to encourage student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines, an effort on which NASA educational outreach is focused.
After introductions, first by the Antelope Valley students and then by their counterparts, came video presentations prepared by each group that were designed to acquaint one side with the culture of the other.
The Americans offered up a boisterous montage of photos culled from recent robotics competitions, and showed off a clattering team-built robot by motoring it around in Palmdale for the Indonesians' edification. From Jakarta, students presented a detailed overview of their schools and their country, highlighting geography, trade, language and cultural institutions. They followed with profiles of their own robotic projects, which featured "T-bot" and "Eco-bot," the first built around a camera/telescope and the second designed for ecological observations.
A question-and-answer session that followed began with polite inquiries about how robotics are undertaken in the respective groups – when do you work on your robot, where do you get funding, what are your competitions like? But what began quietly and formally quickly evolved as on-camera jitters dissipated. By evening's end, the Americans had obliged their new friends with some impromptu dancing and the Indonesians were showing off a traditional bamboo musical instrument. First one and then another student practiced smatterings of foreign language skills, and the Americans invited their new friends to come see the famed orange poppies that grace outlying areas of their communities in the spring.
The two groups were, in short, pretty easily unified despite their diversity. And it is through this process that NASA and governmental leaders hope to forge new ties among nations and identify new opportunities for shared technological advances.
The work begins with young people. If the students' recent experience is any barometer, there is reason for optimism.
"I was just so thrilled to get to be part of it," said Eastside High School's Kirsten Van Langenhoven, who is a member of the Lancaster High robotics team, of her participation in the event. "I mean, the president wanted this. It's part of something so much bigger. I think so much can be changed through the culture – maybe war could be avoided, if people just met each other.
"Man, the future could be so different."
Sarah Merlin of Tybrin Corp. is assistant editor of the X-Press employee newspaper at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.
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