Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Up, Down, Top, Bottom, and a bit of Strange

Up, Down, Top, Bottom, and a bit of Strange

Affiliates Meetings are important.  I already knew that, and no matter how much we try to guess what may or may not be on the agenda, something critical always comes up for discussion among our Academic and Outreach Affiliates each April.  Let me say that this year’s meeting on April 12 (yes, Yuri’s Night) at Ball State was a challenge for me, just from a physical standpoint.  I’d only slept one night in my own house this month, after weeks of substantial travel beginning with the National Space Grant Directors’ Meeting in Washington.  Where did my body think it was … Shanghai?  Seattle?  No matter what, it’s time to get up and start the day’s activity in Muncie. 

The podium says Ball State, so I must be in Indiana today.

At one point during the day, we discussed an unfortunate element of life in bureaucratic organizations: “conservation of meetings”.  No matter what, it seems that meetings expand to fill the time allotted, even if nothing important is being discussed.  I don’t like those meetings, and because I appreciate the commitment and dedication of our Affiliates and Board Members, I try to make sure we don’t have them.  With Indiana Space Grant Consortium (INSGC) business, that’s not hard.   As you can see, the Affiliates even want to work through lunch, discussing INSGC stuff, and connecting with each other.

INSGC Affiliates discussing during lunch break

Of course, the first criterion important to avoid those meetings is to ensure we all understand why are we meeting?  There are frequently operational details that we can cover at a meeting, and update elements, such as our award announcements.  However, as Angie Verissimo, our Operations Coordinator, frequently reminds me, there are lots of operational details included in sending out scholarship offers or initial program awards.  Spending time in the bottom-level details is not always the best use of time in our meetings, but it is important for people to know that these details are being addressed.  So, we did make some “First Award” selections of some of our 2013-14 INSGC portfolio.  (Details of those awards will be presented here soon, after the students and investigators have been informed.) 

The top-down view of awards, however, was also an issue of considerable concern among our affiliates.  The national news isn’t good.  Problems in federal funding.  Congressional concerns and surveillance on program activity.  Cascading effects of The Sequester (perhaps a monster from some late night horror movie?) restricting agency expenses.  Fortunately, these problems aren’t affecting INSGC right now (sequestration decisions are directed at employees, not our INSGC award), but as we discussed, we must not ignore these broader concerns as we work to create the best INSGC possible in the future as well. 

How do we do this?  Among our discussions during the day was an examination of what we expect affiliates to be and do, including expectations for what it means for an affiliate to remain in good standing.  Years ago, we put together processes and expectations for how to become an affiliate (voting up)…  but the concerns in 2006 were not about confirming criteria for whether someone could remain an affiliate (voting down).  A working group including Academic Affiliate, Advisory Board, and Outreach Affiliate participants will be working on this important task over the coming months. 

We also discussed how we create and maintain INSGC in the context of the recent headline news stories about a GAO report highlighting duplication of programs and waste, including how multiple STEM education programs might be consolidated across agencies.   In this context, it’s interesting to talk about INSGC as a prototype for a multi-agency, multi-domain affiliate network.  The emphasis here is to highlight our capabilities in an expanded context—across STEM disciplines.  There is an importance that our partners see us as part of a broader engagement of STEM education and applications. One participant mentioned that we can expand this scope, and not even change our acronym—we can be the Indiana STEM Grant Consortium! 

But wait, some might ask (and some did, at the Affiliates Meeting).  Doesn’t “Space Grant” limit what we focus on in terms of STEM?  You know, the aviation technology, the astronauts, the astronomy, the satellite dynamics?  That’s what gets funded by INSGC!  Well, I suppose that some of that is a reminder of the old story about the blind men and the elephant.  If you’re a particle physicist, for example, you think a lot about particle physics, and you notice particle physics applications, and you even pick up particle physics references in the general world.  (Come on, admit it.  You all saw the title of this entry and thought about quarks.  It’s okay.  I wanted you to.)   But in our annual performance data report, INSGC reported on projects for enzyme reduction for biology applications, and nanotechnology camps for K-12 students and their teachers, and a course on groundwater analysis and modeling. 

One of the concerns that became clear is that there is a lot of worry that, in some future INSGC funded by the Smithsonian or NSF to address some expansive view of STEM engagement, everyone would be asked to juggle all of those balls, recognize all of those features, and do all of those tasks.  In other words, “I can’t wrap my head around all of that stuff.”  Well, I don’t think that everyone needs to do that.  When I went in for shoulder surgery, I was glad my surgeon spent most of his time focusing on tendons and supraspinatus muscles and those details.  When the aircraft is descending through storms, I’m glad my pilot is devoting attention to Doppler radar and flight management systems and airspeed indicators.  You want people to work the details of their specialty.  But it’s also valuable to have a broad view, looking forward. What if we helped with undergraduate student retention?  What if we helped support a new framework for K-12 preservice teacher apprenticeships in science museums?  What if we did motorsports?  Actually, we’re involved in all of these—something that we discussed as Engagement for Execution.  Perhaps it requires someone a bit strange to want to connect all of that.  But as this picture indicates, maybe I’m the right kind of strange… or at least different.

BSC “Rocks Out” when discussing INSGC connections

Coming soon, a brief description of the range of student project and program awards (and student majors) we fund at INSGC.  This description is not just for those other people.  It’s to help us remember how broad we already are, and how many people we can touch around the state.