Space Exploration: Designing a Future for Young Engineers

My 7-year-old son is always talking about what he wants to be when he grows up. “I want to build spaceships,” he tells me. So when I returned recently from a trip to the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs with piles of space related swag and a suitcase full of booklets and brochures, he was overjoyed. “I’m taking these to school to show my class what I’m going to do when I grow up,” he said. I hope he keeps up the momentum.

This year’s National Space Symposium focused heavily on how the US needs to step up its game in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to ensure a competitive edge in space innovation. I sat in on a panel discussion led by well-known industry players—including Raytheon and Booz Allen Hamilton—to hear how they are investing in future engineers.

“We take a multipronged approach to reaching kids,” said Lynn Mortensen, VP of Engineering at Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems. “We are broadly involved in a variety of programs like MathMovesU and FIRST Robotics. Our Sum of all Thrills ride at Epcot Walt Disney World Resort allows children to custom-design their own thrill ride using mathematical tools, an innovative touch-screen table and a robotic simulator. Raytheon Women’s Network (RWN) has gone into junior high schools in the Dallas Fort Worth area to teach physics classes.”

“We need to grow a workforce that can meet the challenge in math and engineering,” said Philip Marshall, VP of United Launch Alliance Production and Recurring Operations. STEM is the future in so many ways. The US lags behind other countries in math and science and it’s an industry imperative to step up to the plate as cuts to resources are continuing to be made in the classroom.”

Winner of the 2010 Spirit of Innovation Award, high school student Mikayla Diesch sat on the panel. Diesch, together with her sister, came up with a NASA-approved nutrition bar for astronauts. “America is not doing as well as it could,” Diesch said. “All the students in my class think they can do OK and still get somewhere, but that’s just not so. You have to work hard to get somewhere, and in order to inspire kids to go the extra mile you need companies to come into schools and talk to students about their future on a personal basis.”

Mikayla Diesch, and her sister Shannon, who together invented a NASA-approved granola bar named the Solar Flare (photo courtesy of MTV Geek)

Asked how to inspire STEM learning, Marshall said: “We need to give kids an immersive education in a non-traditional environment – an opportunity to apply their learning in a hands-on situation and avoid this assembly line approach to education where kids are merely regurgitating facts on tests.”

“Teachers are not valued and sometimes don’t have the skills to teach engineering and science for today’s market,” said Carol Staubach, Senior VP at Booz Allen Hamilton. “We need programs that train the teachers better in order to grow the skills needed for industry.” Raytheon has just such an initiative, allowing teachers to visit Raytheon sites with the goal of obtaining insight into what it’s actually like to work there, and the skills required to succeed.

How can corporations measure whether their programs are working in schools? “It’s really hard for some companies to quantify,” said Mortensen. “At Raytheon we really focus on pushing kids through the pipeline from high school through to 4-year college or technical college. Because we provide scholarships and grants to students, we are able to measure our success. Our programs are working.”

But corporate involvement is only part of the solution, at least for the space industry. The US needs to somehow rejuvenate interest in its space initiatives. Asks Fred Gregory, Former Commander of Space Shuttles Atlantis and Discovery: “How can you talk to a student about STEM when you can’t show there are exciting space programs out there that they can be a part of? We in the space community need to come up with a new mission. The next big idea. Something that the future generation can believe in.”

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