Thursday, January 24, 2013

Winds and Sails

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”  -- William Arthur Ward

Given the weather right now (it’s about 10 degrees F in Lafayette), the “winds and sails” reference above may be more appropriate to ice sailing, but the overall quote is something that I strongly resonate with regarding Space Grant.  Over the past four years, we have gone from projections of tremendous long-term success to lamentations of unavoidable doom, based on funding levels, attitudes in Congress, or organizational dynamics in NASA Headquarters.  Perhaps one advantage I have is that INSGC has been, for my entire time as Director, in some sort of flux—there’s no gilded past to try to return to, and no sense of perpetual darkness. 

This attitude is especially visible to me now as we consider the completion of the 2012-13 program year, the 2013-14 scholarship and program awards competition, and our recent STEM Innovative Pilot proposals on undergraduate student retention and K-12 pre-service teacher training.  These all reflect our changing Space Grant environments, and my hope as your Director is to keep INSGC well positioned to address the challenges of NASA’s role in STEM Education, and the local context of Engaging STEM Education in Indiana.

There are two initiatives that I am especially pleased that INSGC has been involved and invited to participate, both directly related to our focus on Engaging STEM Education in Indiana.  Beginning last fall, a group of industry, education, and non-profits sat down to determine how Indiana can make more progress in STEM Education.  One result of this discussion is the creation of the Indiana STEM Action Coalition for Today (Indiana STEM ACT).  I do look forward to INSGC participation in the areas of STEM strategies and programs, and information and mentoring on STEM careers.  These are things we are expected to do as part of our NASA mission.  A related activity, which also links to Purdue’s role as a land grant institution, involves potential participation in STEM Collaboratory development—a “STEM Mall,” if you will, with afterschool programs,  tutorials, and “artisan labs” where students can work on robotics or other projects.  I can almost see a 21st Century version of the Ag Extension Service and 4-H. 

As our affiliates are considering participation and project development for our awards cycle, I can point out several important elements for this year.  One piece of positive news is that, since our 2013-14 funds are already in place from NASA, summer 2013 project activities beginning after May 17 can be effectively set up and executed.  I have to remind all proposers that we are strongly directed and encouraged by NASA to demonstrate extensive and increasing levels of cost-effectiveness in addressing Space Grant priorities and INSGC SMART Objectives.  As you read through the guidelines (which have changed since last year), please highlight how your project links to the SMART Objectives, with a particular emphasis on how funds will be used, and what are the measurable outcomes that you will track, should your project be supported. 

We simply do not have the funds, or organizational climate, to allow us to continue to do the projects we did five years ago, the same way we did them.  Even if the program was successful then, NASA Headquarters has been explicit in saying that we must demonstrate innovation and increasing reach and touch.  For these reasons (as well as the fluctuating budget levels), we cannot continue our prior model of “Consortium Priorities”.  Does this mean that INSGC will no longer support robotics, or astronomy, or K-12 programs?  Of course not.  However, we must clearly demonstrate in a competitive context how those programs address current program needs, with modest dollars, to achieve important goals, in a very dynamic environment.  Sponsored Programs requires more specification of activity and budget and periods of work; NASA requires more demonstration of "costs per person served".  We ignore those realities at our peril.

I am thrilled that INSGC is well positioned to respond to some of these changes, with our collection of outreach affiliates and a range of academic institutions.  We are small and large, public and private, comprehensive and specific.  Some of our programs are local and community-oriented; others are of national and international prominence.  While others are crying out how horrible the current environment may be, or demanding a return to some idyll, INSGC continues to adjust and tack and progress.