Students from the U.S. and Jakarta spoke to each other via DLN about interests and activities and found they have much in common. (NASA Photo/ Tom Tschida) 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. Because when teenagers get together, no two may be exactly alike but neither are two radically different, as the Dryden education office discovered in an April 19 distance-learning event linking teens in Palmdale and Jakarta.
It was 6 p.m. in the Antelope Valley 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.
All agreed on the supremacy of the TV show "Glee," and the merits of blasting the tunes while your team is building a robot. 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. But for tofu going 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.
World of Warcraft online video gaming, cell phones, Twitter and Facebook. McDonald's, pizza, even 7-11 Slurpees - it was all there, testimony to the ever-expanding global reality that is contemporary life.
It was discovered by the students that Slurpees, pizza and hamburgers are mutual interests. (NASA Photo/ Tom Tschida) That was exactly what organizers had envisioned, and what they plan to build on. The event was a project of Dryden's education office in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, 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. Dryden 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 White House and NASA are interested in eliminating artificial barriers" through such activities as the DLN 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 Antelope Valley side of the exchange took place in the Aerospace Exploration Gallery at NASA's AERO Institute in Palmdale. With help in Jakarta from the U.S. embassy's assistant cultural attaché for youth outreach, Arend Zwartjes, Dryden Distance Learning Network director David Alexander guided local students seated in front of a monitor that displayed their Indonesian counterparts.
David Alexander, left, and John O'Shea help moderate the event. (NASA Photo/ Tom Tschida) The Indonesian students had been selected from schools in the area and gathered at the embassy, where distance-learning technology at the facility 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, Techachapi 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.
The exchange began with introductions, first by the Antelope Valley students and then by their counterparts. Next came video presentations prepared by each group 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 Antelope Valley's famed orange poppies.
Dana Chong, U.S. Department of Education International Affairs also attended the event. (NASA Photo/ Tom Tschida) The two groups were, in short, pretty speedily unified for all 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 Dryden's DLN experience is any barometer, there is reason for optimism.
"I was just so thrilled to get to be part of it," said Lancaster High School's Kirsten Van Langenhoven 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."