The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lunar lander illustration
For visions like this to become a reality NASA—and the nation—needs new generations of talented scientists and engineers. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Ensuring NASA’s future workforce

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”. He also said, “You won’t get anything unless you have the vision to imagine it.” Why am I quoting John Lennon in a column in a space publication? It’s in part because of what Professor Gerald Kulcinski told me was part of his purpose on the NASA Advisory Council. He’s on the committee to make recommendations about improving education in this country to ensure there will be an adequate supply of scientists and engineers in the coming decades for NASA to carry out the Vision for Space Exploration. It is an attempt to make plans for hundreds of thousands of students.

In the evening after work I sometimes head down to the sidewalk in front of the building my office is in. I’ve gotten to know some of the locals that hang out and watch the Sun set over the lake across the street. One individual is an aspiring musician who regularly brings his guitar and plays the blues. He told me he is a bit of a rebel and said he didn’t like school because he didn’t like being told what to do without knowing why he needed to do it. That got me thinking about my own experiences from kindergarten through 12th grade in public schools. Teachers rarely, if ever, explained how what we were learning could be used in future careers. I think it is because outside of teaching, they don’t really know.

The best professors I had for my classes at the University of Wisconsin were ones that had worked in industry before they became professors. They could relate real world experiences into their teaching and be credible. It is the one big thing that I think is missing from public school education. I’ve asked some recent high school graduates if their perception of this is the same as my recollections. They have all said that it is.

NASA wants a way to ensure a supply of scientists and engineers to carry out their mission. While I believe this goal is laudable, I think it is too narrow and not nearly ambitious enough. The country needs better educated people for all occupations if we are to compete with the rest of this globalizing world. I have an idea that I think would help attain this goal.

The country needs better educated people for all occupations if we are to compete with the rest of this globalizing world.

Sparked by what this street corner musician said, I think we need to educate our young people on the importance of what they are learning to their future careers. They way I would do that is with what I would call “National Career Week”. This program would bring volunteers from occupations in all walks of life into classrooms. These volunteers would work with a teacher on one or two lessons to show how what they are learning is used in their occupation. That way students will relate how the material they are learning will help them in the future with the goal of interesting and motivating them. They would also get an idea of which path would help them reach their career goals.

I wouldn’t restrict the program to just math and science. I would find a way to bring in people in all subjects, including art, math, physics, history, English, physical education, and more. The people I would bring in wouldn’t just be from the glamour jobs, like astronaut or pro athlete, that most people will never attain. It would instead be primarily people from everyday common occupations that are the backbone of this country. As they help the teachers conduct a lesson or two, they would relate to the students just how they use the skills in those lessons in their everyday jobs. It would show students how people they can relate to have achieved success, the path that got them there, and what they like and don’t like about their work.

In an engineering class I took at the University of Wisconsin, two engineers from John Deere came in to talk about their work in product safety. They related stories about how consumers would misuse lawnmowers and get incredibly stupid injuries as a result. They talked about their work to build in safety features to prevent these injuries. It was a lesson about what some of the work as an engineer would entail. The stories were so credible and interesting that I remember this one class period far more clearly than almost all the rest of my college education. It is an example of what I think could work at all grade levels and in all subjects.

In addition to bringing in scientists and engineers to help teach math and science lessons, other occupations could come in and show just what they use. Designers of everything, from cars to fashion to print and video ads, could come into an qrt class and talk about how they use the skills learned there. Reporters and writers could come into history and English classes helping with a lesson and explaining how they record history and effectively communicate the information to others. Carpenters and accountants could give a math lesson based on the work that they regularly do.

The advantages of exposing children from an early age on to a wide variety of occupations are numerous. Most students graduate from high school with little knowledge of what most people do in their everyday work lives. If they are exposed to a wide variety of occupations they are, in my opinion, more likely to find something they want to do. That will lead more people into occupations that they are good and productive at. Fewer people will want to radically change their path in college and later in life because more people will select a satisfying path from the beginning. It would give more people a life somewhat in line with what they planned for. That would benefit everyone.

To me, the solution to providing a workforce for both NASA and the rest of the country isn’t pushing greater numbers of students through science and engineering majors; it’s motivating qualified students to want to go into these occupations and excel. There are a number of emerging technologies in engineering that can radically boost productivity so a growth in numbers of engineers in the coming decades may not be all that necessary (developing technology in this area is my specialty). Motivating people to find an occupation that becomes a passion is also about quality of life. It isn’t just for the technical arena. Even NASA needs quality people in areas like public relations, accounting, personnel, construction, management, and procurement.

To me, the solution to providing a workforce for both NASA and the rest of the country isn’t pushing greater numbers of students through science and engineering majors; it’s motivating qualified students to want to go into these occupations and excel.

The advantage of a program like “National Career Week” is that if done properly shouldn’t cost much or need many people to organize it. It could be modeled after the open source software development. With a small organization a web site could be developed to coordinate contacts between schools and companies. This web site could be a place to exchange possible lessons that would be appropriate for different classes and grade levels. It could also provide a forum for participants to exchange ideas on what works and what doesn’t. It would also open up greater lines of communications between schools and industries, leading to feedback on what kind of skills are needed. I think it would be advantageous to most businesses to let their employees participate for a few hours once a year, and in the process connect them to potential future employees.

I believe we should help every student find the vision to imagine what their life could be. It will help improve their chance of attaining their goals by motivating them. I intend to forward my ideas to people that I think could help create such a program. If you have any suggestions on how to create such a program or how to improve it, please forward them to me. If you like my ideas, let me know. If you don’t, let me know why.