Friday, March 1, 2013

All STEM is Local

As I start this entry, the National Space Grant Directors’ meeting is beginning in Washington, DC.  However, I’m on a plane from Indianapolis to Atlanta, not due to arrive at the meeting until approximately 6:00 tonight.  What’s going on?

Over the course of February, we at INSGC have scheduled visits with seven of our nine Congressional representative offices—not in the House Office buildings on Capitol Hill, but in the home district offices.  Normally, an educational visit on Capitol Hill (civics lesson alert) is approximately 10-15 minutes with a staff representative of that House member.  There are people in front of you, and people waiting after you leave.  Sometimes, the “staffer” is from the state; sometimes not.  In any case, you’ve got to be able to speak very directly and with focus on a specific point.  The staffer takes notes, and maybe the House member will hear about it, soon.  You’re one of the issues that day.  

But, what happened when this year?  I’ve made it to Danville and Bloomington and Mishiwaka and Indianapolis (twice) and Terre Haute… and learned a lot.  Most of the meetings have been with district directors; twice I’ve met with the House members themselves.  These people are very tuned in to the local elements of STEM Education in their district—retention among underrepresented males; the need for content and expertise to support a local school planetarium center; the role of internships in workforce development.  These meetings have frequently been 30-45 minutes, or even more.  And in so doing, I’ve re-learned an important lesson famously spoken by another House member, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill

I’m an engineering professor and researcher, not a policy wonk.  I can’t even keep straight which political party is supposed to be red or blue.  (This is true—I needed two election cycles and a mnemonic to get it right.)  But, it is evident that STEM is a local issue.  I have heard the topic raised throughout the state, in a variety of contexts.  Schools.  Training programs.  Replacing old manufacturing jobs.  I took a tour of a new aluminum production facility yesterday, where one of the nation’s largest extrusion presses is being installed.  What sorts of employees need to be hired there?  Technical skill sets, maybe not a four-year engineering degree, but competence with programmable logic controllers and the algebra and materials science to understand quench rates and weight per linear foot and requirements for self-monitoring, “quality circle” work environments.  That’s not old-school unskilled labor, either. 

And so, I’m late to DC because I spent much of Thursday morning participating in an Indiana STEM Action Coalition for Today (I-STEM ACT) “leadership workshop” at the Project Lead the Way national headquarters located in Indianapolis.  I now have a list of those STEM disciplines highlighted by the Commission on Higher Education that are tied to Indiana economic growth and focus.  Interestingly, the presenter was asking whether or not this was useful to the attendees.  I said that yes, it’s very good to highlight “This is what STEM means and highlights in Indiana… and it’s all relevant to NASA.”  Well, what about fisheries, the presenter quipped.  As it turns out, I was part of the NASA NSCORT on Advanced Life Support at Purdue about a decade ago, and one of the research projects was about fish as part of a sustainable recycling and life support system for long-duration spaceflight.  Fisheries help us talk about systems engineering, and carbon balances, and energy conversion, and oxygen cycles—all things of critical importance to NASA’s Human Research Program (looking at human spaceflight) and Science Mission Directorate (examining Earth’s climate and ecosystems).  So, yes, even fisheries. 

Stay tuned.  As our motto says, we want to Engage STEM Education for the State of Indiana.  If STEM is local, what does that mean for Indiana STEM, and the Indiana Space Grant Consortium?  We do plan to find out, and we welcome companions on this exploration