Monday, November 21, 2011

Engaging STEM Education

Those who have visited the INSGC website in the past few days have noted a new page reference and splash leader, “Engaging STEM Education for Indiana”.  In some ways, that’s not anything novel—the INSGC Mission, Vision, and Values all highlight those elements (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).  But, why did we decide to make this change at the very top of our website presence (figuratively and literally)?

Thanks, Angie Verissimo.

Angie is our Operations Coordinator, and is primarily responsible for keeping our accounts and budgets aligned when dealing with NASA, Purdue, and our affiliates’ sponsored programs and activities.  But more importantly, she takes the time to remind us what it feels like not to have spent the past 10, 20, or more years thinking about NASA research and student opportunities.  As we in INSGC (and Space Grant nationally) know, there is more to Space Grant than astronauts, satellites, and stellar formation (although we do fund projects that link to all of those).  But, a friend whose college-aged son or daughter was thinking about returning to Indiana in a science discipline.  Angie pointed out that there could be INSGC scholarship funds available. 

‘Why would they want to apply to a Space Grant?  They’re not interested in being an astronaut.’

What sort of answer do you provide for that?  We took a look at the website, from the perspective, “Why would someone know to look at INSGC for scholarships, projects, and outreach programs in STEM, if they didn’t already know about us?”  In my research life, and the courses I teach, an ongoing theme is that one of the challenges of developing expertise is that once one becomes an expert in something, it’s very hard to remember what it’s like to be a novice in it.  Dr. Dawn and I know about the breadth of NASA research… because we have lived it through our PhDs and our careers.  But it’s easy to forget how much others never learned, things like:

  • ·      Why “Space Grant?”  Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who wrote the original legislation, wanted something for NASA STEM education that echoed the transformative impact on the country that Land Grant did for the nation’s universities (including Purdue) that were created in the 1860s to improve the education level in the “agricultural and mechanical arts”.  That’s why there is a Space Grant in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.  The name is supposed to evoke, not restrict, a picture of innovation and stimulation of children’s imagination. 

  • ·      Aren’t you just astronomy and astronautics?  Space Grant is a NASA Office of Education program, recognizing that our strengths as a nation are based on a broad view of STEM education.  If you think about what’s involved in keeping an astronaut alive on the International Space Station, or keeping a rover alive and talking to us from the surface of Mars, you realize there’s a lot going on: biology, electronics, energy storage, life support, materials science, radiation monitoring, signal processing, software development, water purification, and many other fields.

  • ·      What if I don’t want to go to Purdue?  Yes, INSGC is hosted at Purdue, and that’s where I am a faculty member.  However, INSGC now has over a dozen academic affiliates, and we have over two dozen disciplines and majors involved. 

  • ·      Didn’t they cancel / defund NASA?  The short answer is… NO.  Over the past 20-30 years, NASA has averaged approximately 0.7% of the federal budget.  (That’s seven-tenths of one cent of each dollar.)  The Space Shuttle program has ended, but NASA continues work in space science (those pretty Hubble pictures; rovers current and future), aeronautics (those winglets on airplanes that save gas), and human exploration (to a destination to be named later) at 10 Centers.  NASA funding is being considered for cuts (as is every agency), but 0.5% is not the same as 0%.  (Even the planned Space Grant budget for next year is less than we saw last year, but it certainly isn't zero.  There are many people who believe strongly in the Space Grant mission, and allocate funds accordingly.)

But when doing a quick web search, people don’t focus on all of that.  If they want to talk about STEM Education, they look for that.  (In fact, I am writing this while at a life sciences entrepreneurship discussion in Warsaw, the orthopaedics capital of the world.  There’s a lot I don’t understand, but when they talk about STEM education as an important element of bringing companies to Indiana and keeping them here, I get that.)  Our primary job emphasis from NASA is to engage and enhance STEM education and science literacy.  We’re designed and built to focus on the contexts, needs, and strengths of Indiana…

Engaging STEM Education for the State of Indiana.

Oh, yeah.  We’re about that.  Why don’t we just say it?