Are Moon Walks with a Pet in Our Future? Students Seek Answers

Why does the fruit of an apple tree fall to the ground?

The now-famous question marked the beginning of Isaac Newton’s formulation of the laws of gravity and motion. The same force that makes apples drop keeps the moon orbiting around the Earth, the seminal nineteenth-century scientist hypothesized.

He was right, of course, and our knowledge of astronomy, physics, and many other subjects was greatly advanced by his inquiry.

The Sofia-based, education-focused Tempo Foundation took a leaf out of Newton’s book in proposing that learning should revolve around questions and their investigation, not ready-made answers. In December 2020, their project “Questions Are the New Answers” received funding from the America for Bulgaria Foundation’s Next 10 Program. The project’s emphasis on active inquiry rather than on rote learning promises to improve student motivation and advance science and technology learning in Bulgarian schools.

Taking place in 2021–2022, the pilot edition of “Questions Are the New Answers” helped foster interest in STEM subjects at General José de San Martín School, Sofia’s 90th. The school’s leadership was Tempo’s partner in developing and testing a new STEM learning methodology that replaces memorizing discrete knowledge and testing on the memorized information with student-led, teacher-mediated inquiry into big questions covering a variety of STEM and humanities topics. Fifth, sixth, and seventh graders from the school were the first students to benefit from the question-centered, interdisciplinary approach.

In a nod to Newton’s wonderings, educators from the two organizations formulated questions that challenge students to look around them, make observations, and take measurements. The queries help students discover how the laws of nature apply to practical, everyday matters such as providing light or warmth for your home, building your own workout equipment at home, and understanding how your smartphone knows where you are.

Many questions are designed to lead students on a journey of exploration into the human body and the known and unknown universe as well as to get them thinking about as-yet-unsolved challenges: How can we help humans and animals survive extreme temperatures? What will happen to our world if we stopped using fractions? Can we clean our old energy, or should we look for new energy sources? Can we disappear like the dinosaurs did? Can we establish human settlements on Mars?

Milena Leneva from the Tempo Foundation at the fourth annual ABF community forum

Last but not least, what will it take for lunar strolls with a favorite pet to become reality?

“Many of the questions are about the future and have no answers yet. To analyze them, you need to learn a lot about physics, chemistry, biology — all these subjects. Through questions about the future, you can take the knowledge you need and have from before, but place it in a context that is much more challenging and meaningful for learners and teachers,” says Milena Leneva, cofounder and CEO of the Tempo Foundation, who has worked for educational transformation in Bulgaria for over 20 years.

Crucially, the teacher doesn’t tell students what they need to know; the teacher is a guide, a facilitator, helping open doors but not leading the way. There is not one right answer, nor is there a single pathway for answering a question; students determine that pathway on their own.

Milena and the rest of the Tempo Foundation team believe that students’ active role in their own learning is key. “We live at a time when you don’t look outside to see if it’s raining but consult your phone app instead. Right now, the education system encourages that passiveness. It tells you, ‘You are not an explorer of the world,’” she says. This is a common shortcoming of education systems worldwide.

Helping students find their inner explorers is part of why Emilia Ivanova, the principal of General José de San Martín School, got involved in the program’s pilot. The educator’s task, in her view, is to “turn learning into a real experience and keep the flame, the spark of curiosity, alive in our students.”

A housing lighting student project

An education veteran committed to learning transformation, Ms. Ivanova adds: “We need to overhaul educational content in a way that students become active contributors to its development. The questions we formulate must be challenging enough to make them seek answers. We don’t know these answers in advance, nor do we know which way children will go in search of answers or how far they will venture. We need to teach them to ask a lot of questions, because you learn best when you ask questions.”

Adjustments had to be made by all involved in the project pilot to accommodate the new approach, but after a year of working with questions, both students’ and teachers’ motivation is on the rise. Interest in pursuing STEM subjects has increased as well, judging by the number of first-time participants from the school in science-related extracurricular activities and competitions as well as by the students’ strong performance in those activities. Learners’ enthusiasm for the new approach is palpable.

Making education more engaging is far from the project’s only goal, though. It’s about preparing the adults of tomorrow to solve unfolding challenges such as resource depletion, global warming, and many others.

“If we want to change something about our world, we shouldn’t prop up old models; someone has to have the imagination to create something different,” Milena says.

Student project on living in an asymmetrical world

And while not everyone’s input will be as foundational as Isaac Newton’s was, today’s middle schoolers all have a place in our shared future, whatever careers they choose to pursue. Piloting the shuttles that take us to Mars (or maintaining the rovers allowing us to explore the planet’s surface), manufacturing building materials for Martian dwellings, and cooking the food that sustains us in the Red Planet’s harsh conditions will all require being willing to get out of one’s comfort zone, finding new ways to use knowledge — and, importantly, working together.

In the project’s pilot, teamwork didn’t go smoothly all the time but always made for a better final product, students admit.

So, maybe moon walks and planetary settlement do start with helping a bunch of middle schoolers set aside their differences and work out a question together.

This is a hypothesis worth testing.

A list of 60 questions, along with detailed study plans and how-to guides, is available on the Tempo Foundation’s website. Tempo’s educators also conduct trainings for school teams. Find out more at

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