Families across the state are easing into the new school year with back-to-school rituals and preparing for busy fall schedules in the months ahead. After capturing first day of school photos, managing carpools and figuring out bus routes, parents and kids reacclimate family routines to juggle homework, extra-curricular activities, meal times and bed times. It’s an exciting time of year and the transition to new classrooms and new beginnings soon falls into place for kindergartners all the way up to first-time college students.

Iowa has a proud heritage for exceptional schools and civic commitment to educating the next generation. The most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Education show Iowa sits at the head of the class and ranks first-in-the-nation with a 91 percent high school graduation rate.

From one generation to the next, Iowa schools continue a strong partnership among parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members to uphold a core mission of educating and preparing students to reach their full potential, become productive citizens and choose a pathway to success. Society places high expectations on the shoulders of teachers and coaches who serve critical formative influences on the next generation as educators and mentors. Many Iowans can rattle off the names of their most influential teachers decades later.

Long ago, my mother taught students in a one-room schoolhouse, and my youngest sister carried forward this legacy for nearly 50 years in her own classroom. Parental engagement and healthy habits at home will help kids get off to a good start in the new school year. Students will be working to master literacy, develop critical thinking skills and study STEM-based curriculum in classrooms across the state. Iowa students are learning 21st-century skills that will prepare them to contribute to society, from military service to job readiness, entrepreneurship, vocational training, and higher education. When I meet with students in high schools across Iowa, I say dream big, the sky’s the limit.

Iowa Institutions Have Lead the Way with STEM

Acclaimed physicists and engineers put Iowa on the STEM map decades before the academic acronym was introduced in 2001 by the U.S. National Science Foundation. For example, Iowans take pride in the work of Dr. John V. Atanasoff of Iowa State University who conceived and invented the world’s first electronic digital computer from 1939 to 1942. Known today as the “father of the computer,” he and his engineering graduate student, Clifford Berry, invented the principles used for modern computing.

Another renowned physicist probed scientific space discovery at the University of Iowa (UI). Dr. James Van Allen helped launch the first U.S. satellite into space and established the field of magnetospheric space research. He discovered in 1958 the eponymous Van Allen radiation belts.

Six decades later, a team of researchers at UI are continuing the legacy of Dr. Van Allen and his protégé Dr. Don Gurnett. Earlier this year, NASA awarded a $115 million contract to UI to study the magnetic fields between the sun and Earth. Winning the single-largest contract award in school history, the team at the Department of Physics and Astronomy once again has put Iowa on the map as a global leader in space science and scientific discovery.

The federal contract is part of NASA’s Explorers Program studying how the sun affects space and the environment around planets. According to scientists, the magnetic bubble surrounding our planet protects Earth from supersonic, heated winds that carry harmful radiation. When solar winds breach the magnetic field, the result can impact GPS signals, power grids, radio communications, and aviation. The UI research will help NASA advance its mission by examining strategic resources in space. It also will help attract even more top talent to the university.

I was honored to join the NASA Administrator in Iowa City in August to learn more about the project. The research team will be studying the Earth’s cusps – openings in the magnetic fields surrounding our planet – to collect data on solar radiation. I congratulate this top-notch team of scientists and researchers. Using cutting edge science, technology, engineering, and math, they will continue the legacy forged by Drs. Van Allen and Gurnett. Yet again, UI is perched on the cusp of discovery, ready to unlock new frontiers in space scholarship as scientific pioneers right here in the Hawkeye State.

For the students across Iowa heading to class in the new school year, remember to dream big. Don’t forget that a couple of farm boys from Mount Pleasant and Fairfax reached for the stars and wrote new chapters of space innovation and exploration. Their odyssey took them all over the world and their scientific quest took their research beyond the solar system to interstellar space.

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