NASA school programs train future work force
In December 2002, Hutto Middle School students spoke live with astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). During a 20-minute downlink via satellite to the Central Texas school, eighth-grade students asked the astronauts questions, while the entire school watched on television screens in the cafeteria and gymnasium.
The special day, which included visits from Hutto's mayor, school board and area legislators, was part of an educational program coordinated by NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC).
Texas Aerospace Scholars (TAS) encourages students to explore careers in science, math and engineering and uses space exploration as a central theme. Since NASA-JSC and the state of Texas launched TAS in 1999, more than 1,800 Texas teachers and students have participated in the program, which is funded through a combination of state, federal and private-sector contributions. Students complete an online curriculum, and teachers develop plans for integrating NASA-related materials into their classrooms. Participants attend a summer residential program at NASA-JSC.
Hiring the best
TAS is part of NASA-JSC's ongoing effort to encourage more students to pursue technical degrees and employment in aerospace or other technical industries. Since the average NASA-JSC employee is 45 years old, NASA-JSC anticipates losing many workers to retirement in the coming years with fewer technically skilled workers to fill their places, says JuliAnna Potter, NASA-JSC government affairs liaison.
"We hire the best of the best because of the work product we put out--human space flight," Potter says. "Whatever we can do to build partnerships to encourage science and engineering degrees is what we want to do. Education is critical to our industry."
NASA-JSC employs about 16,000 people; 3,000 are civil servants and 13,000 work at major NASA contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the United Space Alliance, Potter says. NASA-JSC's total economic contribution to the Houston and Clear Lake area economy was $2 billion in fiscal 2001, the latest year for which figures are available.
Summer school at NASA
TAS originally targeted only high school juniors, and the program received $175,000 in state funding each year. In 2002, NASA expanded the program to include community college students and middle school teachers, thanks to increased funding from the 2001 Texas Legislature. Beginning in 2002, NASA-JSC receives $585,000 each year from the state, through the University of Houston, to run the TAS program. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Rotary National Awards for Space Achievement Foundation also contribute funding.
TAS has three components: High School Aerospace Scholars (HAS); Middle School Aerospace Scholars (MAS); and Community College Aerospace Scholars (CAS).
In the HAS program, legislators nominate students in their districts who show interest or talent in math, science, engineering or computer science. Selected students participate in an interactive online curriculum through the year that culminates in a week-long summer program where they visit NASA-JSC to meet with engineers and astronauts.
"Essentially, the Texas Aerospace Scholars programs encourage Texas students to explore their futures beyond high school and college graduation," says Arturo Sanchez, program manager for TAS. "We use space to inspire them to explore the exciting possibilities of careers in science, technology, engineering and math."
Since 1999, 112 legislators have nominated 1,162 students to participate in HAS, and 98 teachers have served as program counselors. Each year, more than 200 high school students apply for the program. Those who successfully complete their online work may attend the one-week summer program.
Laura Sarmiento participated in the HAS program in 2001.
"Getting to go to NASA was definitely very cool," Sarmiento says. Now a sophomore at the University of Texas-Austin, Sarmiento plans to major in neurobiology and pre-medicine.
Talking with astronauts
The MAS program targets eighth-grade teachers, who apply to participate in teams of two or four. Two-teacher teams represent math and science; four-teacher teams represent math, science, social studies and language arts. During the summer, selected teachers participate in a week-long professional development workshop at JSC, where they learn to integrate NASA instructional materials into their classroom curriculum. The program includes a series of events at the participants' schools throughout the school year.
Sandy Rothrock, an eighth-grade math teacher at Hutto Middle School, attended the MAS summer training with Kipi Burt, the school's eighth-grade science teacher, in summer 2002. The teachers heard expert speakers and wrote curriculum centering on the ISS. Their training allowed the teachers to apply for the downlink with the ISS, and their school was selected. MAS arranges only two ISS downlinks each year with selected schools whose teachers participated in the program.
"It was like the president coming to town," Rothrock says of the ISS downlink. "It was definitely a very big event here in Hutto."
Since 2002, 160 eighth-grade teachers representing 58 schools have participated in the MAS program. Those teachers can reach 18,249 students.
Roving on Mars
CAS is a one-semester program that encourages community college students to study science and engineering and pursue four-year degrees. Since CAS began in 2002, 478 community college students have participated, and 78 faculty members from across the state have served as contacts at each college.
Each community college district in Texas nominates 10 students interested in math, science or technical fields. Selected students visit NASA-JSC for three days in the spring where they work on a project, for example, designing a rover vehicle that could operate on Mars, Sanchez says.
Jennifer McConaughy participated in the CAS program in March 2003. McConaughy wants to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Houston and eventually work at NASA in Houston.
"Being able to go to Houston and meet some of the people down there and actually see Johnson Space Center really helped me realize that my goals were not far off," McConaughy says. "It made my decision to actually move to Houston. It made me want to get involved."
In 2002, NASA-JSC surveyed 316 alumni from the HAS program from 1999-2001. Based on 91 responses, 84 percent are pursuing degrees in science, math, engineering or technology at Texas colleges and universities, and 98 percent are pursuing higher education degrees. About 65 percent indicated their participation in the HAS program influenced their decision to pursue a degree in a "STEM" area--science, technology, engineering or math, Sanchez says.
From 1999-2003, 59 percent of the HAS participants were male, and 41 percent were female. Minorities accounted for 38 to 40 percent of the students during all four years.
NASA-JSC wants to continue to prepare students to pursue careers in STEM areas, Sanchez says.
"We would like to increase the number of underrepresented participants across all of our programs and increase participation from border and rural districts," he says.
Sanchez says NASA-JSC wants to continue to develop TAS, which could serve as a model for other states.
"The TAS programs are inspiring the next generation of explorers," says Gen. Jefferson D. Howell Jr., center director for NASA-JSC.
"The Johnson Space Center's partnership with the state of Texas has been a win-win, especially for the students of Texas," Howell says.
A little help, please
A joint program between NASA-JSC and the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership (formerly the Clear Lake Area Economic Development Foundation) is helping small businesses benefit from technology developed through space exploration. The Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP) matches small business owners with space industry technical teams, composed of members from NASA-JSC, Houston-area space contractors and colleges and universities.
SATOP started in 1999 in an eight-county area surrounding NASA-JSC, but expanded statewide in 2001 when the program received federal funding. The state provides $115,000 each year, and NASA provides another $550,000 annually to fund the program in Texas. SATOP is a cooperative program between Texas and Florida, New Mexico and New York--other states that receive federal funding.
SATOP distributes the funds among the state's congressional districts' economic development organizations. The funds enable the organizations to visit local businesses and promote the program, says Bob Mitchell, SATOP's executive director. Economic development groups receive between $5,000 and $10,000 each year to promote the program, and funding is based on how many visits the group will make to local businesses.
SATOP offers up to 40 hours of free assistance to each small business. If a business has a problem it can't solve, such as an electrical or mechanical issue, it can request help from SATOP at www.spacetechsolutions.com. SATOP officials review the requests and send queries each week to "Alliance Partners," more than 15,000 engineers who have volunteered their expertise and time.
According to SATOP, in 2002, the program received 120 requests statewide and successfully solved more than 87 percent of the problems.