Friday, July 12, 2013

Summer, Yes. Lazy, Not So Much.

It's a beautiful day in West Lafayette today.  Brilliant blue skies, temperatures in the upper 70s to low 80s.  Sounds like a perfect day for a low-stress staff meeting called at 11:00, with the Director to suggest taking the rest of the day off?  Unfortunately, that is not INSGC this week.  (I did play golf yesterday, in between statistics class lecture notes and NASA site logins and reviews of project reports.)

The activities that we discussed today are being repeated 52 times across the country, and they're summarized with another NFLA (NASA Four Letter Acronym) known as OEPM (Office of Education Performance Measurement, if you must know).  How do we enter these program measures and costs?  Which way do we enter the student data?  What can we provide in a secure way, given the time available and workload required?  Imagine my readiness for full-scale panic this morning when it seemed that data had gone missing... but no, it was a challenge in accessing the data using the right combination of key clicks.  Scary, and a reminder of the various ways that the process could go wrong and place us in noncompliance.

Even in my most humorous moods, I can't laugh away this last point.  Noncompliance with a federal grant requirement, or violations of contractual fiscal obligations, is a really big, nasty deal.  This was not something that I spent lots of time worrying about in grad school, or while getting tenure.  (For clarity, I am not talking about research ethics or fraud or stowing away leftover grant funds for a fishing trip to Antigua.  All of those are clearly wrong, and we did talk about why those things were really bad for the individual, and the institution and profession as a whole.)  Over the 10 years that I've been INSGC Director, my biggest summer worry most years has been about making the budgets (including that mysterious "cost share") balance against costs, and exceed the promised commitment to NASA.  (Yes, it's that important.  A grant proposal with a promised cost share amount is considered a legal commitment by the institution to spend that amount of money that won't be charged to the grant.  It's not just a good idea.  It's the law.)

So, today's meeting included a lot of "What's still outstanding?"  "What do we do with those numbers?"  "When do we finalize the report to send off to Headquarters?"  (Officially, the due date is July 19--next Friday.  We're aiming for Wednesday, July 17.  Overachievers?  No, just paranoid and worried that something might go wrong and... put us in noncompliance.)  This is not fun, but it is enough to justify the hours being spent by both Ellie and Julie, our summer interns, checking and entering and staying in close communication with Angie and Dr. Dawn.  Hey, BC!  Here's why we're going to talk you out of doing what you just said you wanted us to do! (A task that is easy when set up one way becomes profoundly difficult when done another way.  Ironically, that's part of what I look at as a human factors engineer, but that's an issue for another day and another blog.)

Once we're done with OEPM, the work's not done.  I will be in Indianapolis multiple times talking about and working with others on a "STEM Engagement Umbrella": we've got a lot of wonderful outreach activities underway at our museums, science centers, and college campuses.  However, it's a real challenge just to find out what's going on in STEM here at Purdue this week, let alone around the state.

(How many of you knew that this year is the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway, the first national route system designed and built explicitly for auto traffic?  This highway, now described in large part by the US 20, US 30, US 33, and 933 route designations through towns from Ft. Wayne to Merrillville, is part of how Indiana developed as part of the automobile nexus of the US before 1930.  Indiana was also part of the National Road system, implemented a century earlier, through Richmond, Indianapolis, Terre Haute, and other towns in the central part of the state.  In other words, the history of transportation technology and civil engineering created the layout and population centers of the state known as the Crossroads of America.  If that isn't STEM affecting your life, I don't know what is.)

Those in education policy need to focus on criteria for evaluating how well programs meet state education standards.  I just want to highlight how much STEM affects all of us in Indiana every day, and help engage that understanding on a more consistent and effective basis.

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