Astra Nova: The Elon Musk School Now Taking New Students

Elon Musk's Astra Nova conundrums is teaching students how to think ethically to solve problems in a creative way.

By Jessica Marie Baumgartner

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Astra Nova conundrums

Elon Musk is as close to a celebrity as the tech world has really ever seen. In addition to starting companies like PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, and more, the reported richest man in the world has also been known to mix it up on Twitter (including trying to buy the social media platform), hosted Saturday Night Live, and worked his way into discussions on all manner of fronts. Where he’s not often discussed is in the world of education, though that could be changing. Because Elon Musk has helped start a new school that appears to be in growth mode. It started as Ad Astra but is now known as Astra Nova.

The school began as a small initiative but has grown to now accept applicants from really all over the globe. Let’s take a look at what we know about Astra Nova, how it began, where Elon Musk is involved, and the way it approaches education.

Astra Nova Was Ad Astra

Ad Astra was the first iteration of the school partly founded by Elon Musk. It was thought to be an exclusive school because when it first started it ran out of SpaceX headquarters. As Josh Dahn, the head of the school, says, the initial intent of Ad Astra’s philosophy was to put students at the forefront with first principles. It wasn’t so much exclusive as not that accessible seeing as how the students were children of SpaceX employees. And Dahn mentions that the secretive nature of it as an actual school had more to do with zoning than anything else.

At the core of the original educational practices within Ad Astra, which have carried over to Astra Nova was that students would work in teams to solve problems and wouldn’t necessarily follow traditional schooling methods. This would include experiments, ethical conundrums (which we’ll get to), team building, as well as complex and simple problem-solving. When it first started, the school was mostly children of SpaceX employees, though by 2018 had expanded to about 40 students with some coming from the greater Los Angeles area.

In 2020, Ad Astra became Astra Nova and though it is officially located in Los Angeles, there has been an expansion into online schooling that is making it more accessible to children and students everywhere.

The Astra Nova Education And Conundrums

As we said, Astra Nova doesn’t adhere to a traditional schooling process and, in many ways, is the exact opposite of what you would find in a brick-and-mortar public school. The curriculum is centered around what they call conundrums because of how critical thinking and problem-solving are core elements of effective learning. 

In connection with the Astra Nova School, the conundrums video series was designed through partnerships with Artrake and ClassDojo. They are easily found for free on YouTube, and present plenty of lessons for independent students or teachers who wish to incorporate them into classrooms. Within each video, an issue is presented, but instead of laying out a simple task like many word problems, ethical concerns also come into play. Students are supposed to examine each situation and come to their own conclusion without judgment or the belief that one answer is better than another.  

Although these Astra Nova conundrums each present different scenarios with multiple solutions, they are based on real-world issues from a simplistic viewpoint. From determining who should get paid more when discovering treasure: The Researcher, The Translator, or The Treasure Hunter, to the more recent Closing Conundrum: Which addresses the issue of an aged-school being restored, demolished, or repurposed. Instead of offering word problems with specific answers, these conundrums encourage students to accept that not every answer is going to be the “correct” one and that sometimes all answers have the potential to be a solution — especially in social settings.

This new approach to teaching ethics is considered eccentric to some, but others are intrigued by the method. While most school curriculum delivers single answers, which are beneficial in specific fields, many students are lacking in a broader understanding of different viewpoints. Despite numerous attempts to make the education system more “inclusive” and “equitable,” modern ethics approaches have led to further division because they focus on identity politics, rather than different thought processes. By introducing puzzles that present various ethical approaches, the Astra Nova conundrums afford students the opportunity to stop obsessing over heritage and looks, in an effort to seek out the fairest answers.

While still not widely adopted as a classroom standard, these videos have been viewed millions of times and introduced to students around the world. Because the Astra Nova conundrums play like fun little cartoons it may be difficult to measure how exactly they have already affected students, and if progress rates have been tied to these lessons. Regardless, parents and teachers are constantly seeking more tools to engage children in their learning process. 

The videos themselves were unveiled as early as 2018 but uploaded to the school’s YouTube page just last year. Each Astra Nova conundrum has multiple comments and appeals to viewers of various ages. While these little ethics problems may have been developed for children, it seems as if they also appeal to adults and may be teaching older generations a few lessons as well. As more videos are released and the school itself expands, the impact of the unorthodox lessons holds the potential to veer education in a new direction.  

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Who Can Go To Astra Nova?

Though Ad Astra and Astra Nova started with mostly just Elon Musk’s kids and some other SpaceX brood as attendees, there are now options for others to come on board. Astra Nova is currently taking applications for the 2022-23 school year with the age ranges between 10 and 14 years old. This would be around 5th to 8th grade. 

The Astra Nova application process has a few different steps but is a rolling admissions schedule. The next one ends in January 2023. To start, prospective applicants are asked to respond to one of the conundrums listed on the website. The Lake conundrum above isn’t one of them. Applicants must respond to the “Arctic Conundrum”, “Art Conundrum” or the “Moonshot Conundrum”. The response should be done in video form and it’s recommended each be about one to three minutes long.

There is also a parent letter needed for Astra Nova with more information about the child and the expectations for education. It seems, that in many ways, Astra Nova is doing away with a lot of formality here, saying that the parent letter should be more like a short email than anything else and to not worry about grammar or spelling.

How Much Does This Elon Musk School Cost?

Though Elon Musk is a billionaire many times over, Astra Nova still costs money to attend. And it isn’t cheap. The current running rate for a year’s tuition to the school is $32,500. While that doesn’t push up against the most elite private schools and academies, it’s of course much more than the “free” public school in town. That being said, the instruction here is almost certainly as good if not better than just about any other school out there. And in terms of innovative practices, it would likely be tough to find a school doing it better. 

And Astra Nova has said that there are financial aid options as well which are offered during the application process. And even the $55 application fee is waived for families earning less than $75,000 per year. So the initial price tag shouldn’t necessarily discourage families right off the bat.