Friday, March 25, 2011

A Long Week in the INSGC Offices...

... but all's well that ends well.

This has been the kind of week that can leave a Space Grant Director (or any professor) worn out.  For most of the week, the INSGC staff and I have been working on the annual progress report that we need to send to NASA to highlight and summarize our Space Grant program activity.  Between budget calculations, accounting of staff expenses, and documenting project activities (with suitable quotes about how Space Grant changes lives and careers), we've spent maybe 60 person-hours this week on this report.  That seems appropriate, though--until we complete a report that communicates what we need to NASA Headquarters (and allows them to answer questions from the Administrator, or Congress, or the Office of Management and Budget), we're not really eligible for our next funding allocation.

In addition to the Progress Report, it's internship allocation time at the NASA Centers.  It's an interesting period of offers and counteroffers, requests and deferrals.  (Of course, it's even more exciting because no one in NASA has definite information about their budgets for employing summer interns yet.)  After several phone calls and reviews of our lists of applicants, we've started making a few tentative commitments of support.  I know from prior feedback (and my own experience as a summer faculty fellow at NASA Johnson Space Center), that every internship has the opportunity to be a life-changing experience.  In fact, one of the quotes included in our Progress Report was about one such student, Michael Zwach.  You can see for yourself what Mike is up to; I am grateful for his kind words about INSGC, but the motivation and commitment and intensity is all his.

That might seem like enough.  Like the late night infomercial, though, you know the next line: "But wait, there's more!"  I am part of a team working on a very unique and non-standard proposal to look at how to engage people (kids, adults, scientists, engineers, artists, writers, librarians, and so many others) in the examination and expansion of human creativity.  INSGC can serve a very important role in such an activity, since creativity and imagination are words so often linked to NASA and discussions of the space program.  This is something not just for Purdue, or for Indiana, but everywhere there are people who combine "Wouldn't it be great if..." with "How do I make that happen?".

Actually, two examples of that are some of my biggest sources of enjoyment and enthusiasm this week.  Once again, the astronaut hometowns of Crown Point and Indianapolis will be represented on a Space Shuttle flight--in fact, STS-135, the last Space Shuttle flight.  But no, it's not Jerry Ross or Dave Wolf on the crew.  Elementary, Middle, and High School students from Crown Point and Indianapolis have committed to partnerships in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, or SSEP, on the final Shuttle mission.  (The SSEP is a wonderful project from the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.  I've already told you about how wonderful they are.)

I can't tell you how proud I am to be able to see Indiana's contributions to the space program, and to the inspiration and excitement it provides, to continue its legacy this way.  I invite you to follow the two sets of projects as they move forward towards launch--I know I will.

Avicenna Academy, Crown Point:  SSEP Blog--Avicenna's Stars Shoot for Space
George Washington Community School, Indianapolis:

Friday, March 18, 2011

This is the good part...

During most of the month of March, my work with INSGC has been filled with struggle and challenge and effort.  We're still trying to determine what Congress' will for NASA will be for FY 2011, and what the NASA Office of Education will emphasize in our program requirements for the next project year (starting in May 2011).  We've been bombarded with requests to support summer interns at NASA Centers (I'm aware of five Centers at last count), and I know we won't be able to fund them all.  But, sometimes it's a good day, and today has been one of those good days.

Our plans for the INSGC Affiliate Meeting and Outreach / Partnership Engagement for Tuesday, April 12 are coming together well.  I was able to meet with a couple of industry representatives who hope to send folks to the meeting.  Partnerships for STEM education, engagement, and outreach are usually a good way to connect to folks; two IMAX movies and posters on the 50th Anniversary of the first human in space and 30th Anniversary of the first Space Shuttle flight are good, too.  We're continuing to put together a strong program for our Affiliates, Partners, and potential partners.

An even better part of today was the chance I had to attend the FIRST Robotics Boilermaker Regional competition here on the Purdue campus.  Remember, it's March in Indiana, and the Purdue men's and women's basketball teams are playing NCAA tournament games this weekend.  Despite this, hundreds of high school students and over a dozen Purdue students were having a great time doing... robots.  Cool robots.  Robots hanging shaped inflatable objects representing the FIRST logo.  Robots climbing poles.  Every robot is different, and every robot reflects the imagination and dedication and commitment of teams of students and mentors to take an idea, and build it, and get to to work, and get maybe a couple vanloads of your fans to cheer for you.

Unlike other Space Grants, INSGC does not provide support for individual teams.  We support the regional competition itself.  The Boilermaker Regional was actually the doing of a group of Purdue University students who wanted to get involved in robotics, and helping out high school students.  Many of these Purdue students had been involved in FIRST at their high schools, so they developed a student organization (Purdue FIRST Programs) to support multiple teams.  They started asking for INSGC support a few years ago, and then put together an application to the National FIRST leadership to host a high school regional competition here each March (and Lego League activities for the younger students in the Fall).  This sort of dedication demonstrates a number of the principles of FIRST--technical excellence, professional dedication, mentoring, and teamwork.  So, given a choice, it seems obvious that INSGC work to support this level of effort for what has become one of the more popular FIRST regional competitions--not just for teams around Indiana, but folks from Alabama, California, and Puerto Rico who want to visit Purdue and get excited about engineering.  Thus, no matter who wins or loses, we all have a good day, and I am extremely pleased that INSGC gets to be a part of it.

There is another extremely cool piece of news, but I can't tell you just yet.  When you hear it, you'll be as thrilled as I am.  Here's one hint.  Two Indiana astronaut hometowns will have something else to be excited about regarding spaceflight, and like FIRST, it will be the K-12 students and teachers themselves who are the true heroes.

Have a good weekend, as we move towards the Full Moon tomorrow, and the Equinox next week.  Spring couldn't be here too soon.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

After the Space Grant Meeting, part 1: You're a Rock Star!

Dawn Whitaker and I have been in Washington since Wednesday, as part of the "Spring" meeting of the National Council of Space Grant Directors.  (Unfortunately, I have had another meeting on Friday and Saturday, but we have been discussing strategy and tasks and schedules over dinner and email.)  This is something that all Space Grant Directors are expected to attend every year, including both the educational visits to Capitol Hill and the program oversight discussions with our NASA Headquarters manager.

Friday night, we got to hear from the winner of the Distinguished Service Award, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, about the improving the role of science and science education among the public.  He made some very interesting points about science and popular culture, including an example that I hadn't considered.  When I was a kid, how much science was there on TV?  (I'm not talking Star Trek or Lost in Space, but real science.)  Maybe a few hours a month, on PBS, or Mutual of Ohama's Wild Kingdom.  Now, we've got several entire networks devoted to it: Discovery Channel, Science Channel, Planet Green...

Dr. Tyson has created a new radio show (called Star Talk) which is an interesting twist on the old science program model.  (Really?  A radio show?)  Instead of being the scientist invited onto a show to be interviewed, or even the scientist or engineer interviewing other scientists and engineers, what about a show where popular culture folks are invited onto the show by the scientist, to talk about how science affects their corner of the world?  It's not just a discussion with a pop culture icon, of course.  They have fans.  Those fans will tune in, and download the podcast.  And they get exposed to more science and technology and engineering and math... in ways that they find relevant to their lives.

One of the other questions raised during the discussion with Dr. Tyson was about how we could get kids to be excited about science.  His answer, which echoes the comments we heard from Dr. Jeff Goldstein of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, is that kids start out as explorers and investigators and curious scientists.  (By the way, both Dr. Goldstein and Dr. Tyson are graduates of the Bronx High School of Science.)  We have got to stop killing off that enthusiasm.  Science isn't just about the book knowledge; it's about the processes of discovery.  It's about showing people that science isn't just for a few eggheads out there.

So, if you see Dr. Tyson on The Colbert Report, or local families spending the evening in one of Dr. Goldstein's programs at the National Air and Space Museum, think about this--lots of people get touched by those experiences.  Science is everywhere.  Everyone is touched by it.  This is what we need to do in Space Grant--show people how their lives are touched, on a daily basis, by STEM and the activities that NASA manages.

Next up... How do you know when you've done a good job?