Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Space, Inspiration, and STEM Education

Food for thought as I attend the “Igniting Young Minds Through Space” symposium this week...I’m a big advocate of getting kids interested in space exploration as soon as possible. My sister informed me awhile back that my six-year-old niece had built a rocket out of Legos. Warms the heart.

But I think some thought needs to be given to the whole notion that being interested in space as a kid automatically means you’re going to study science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) subjects. Perhaps I’m an anomaly (big surprise), but as I was taking aptitude tests as a kid, I always scored high on math and science—higher than I did on English, by the way—and yet I ended up as an English major and didn’t get into technical writing until well into my second career at age 33. How did that happen? I was smart enough. My mother was taking an algebra course when I was in sixth grade, and I was doing the problems out of her book for fun. However, around junior high I started having trouble with algebra, and despite being in semi-advanced placement classes, I was really struggling to get by. Part of this might have been a hangover from my social struggles. But part of it was just boredom. I didn’t enjoy doing math for fun anymore. I took environmental science and biology to avoid the math that I knew came with physics and chemistry, and no one pushed me to do otherwise.

All this time, I was following the space program, particularly the Shuttle, which was just starting to fly when I was in junior high (my dad took me to STS-2, the second launch of Columbia, in 1981). But I remained a science fiction geek, very much stuck in my own little world(s). Part of the blame I place solely on myself—I was not incapable, I was lazy. It’s not that I couldn’t do the math, I just didn’t want to. I was bored, and SF seemed more fun/interesting. I graduated Northern Illinois University (19 years ago today, as it happens) with a minimum of dummy-algebra, dummy-trig, and that was it. I was done with that stuff. I majored in English literature, minored in history, and took science classes that didn’t require a great deal of math (meteorology, geology). I was going to write The Great American Science Fiction Novel. I still recall Father Dan asking, “Now that you’ve got no marketable skills, what are you going to do with yourself?” In fact, I had this irrational belief that I could write the aforementioned Novel and make enough money to go to Disney World whenever I pleased. Meanwhile, back in the real world, I ended up working at Disney World for 12 years to pay the bills and support my SF writing habit. Never have written that Novel, by the way.

  Again, despite my interest in space and SF, my career path did not lead directly to a career in the space business. What happened was that I went to a space advocacy convention (the International Space Development Conference) in Orlando when it came to town that year and “got religion,” or at least figured out what I wanted to do with my life: write for the space business. You can thank Robert Zubrin for that. He was a dynamic speaker, at the height of his influence at the time, and talking very boldly about a humans-to-Mars program that could be done within 8 years. I thought, what the heck, I can contribute to that! And so I went back to school to get a B.S. in engineering, figuring that I’d need some technical credential(s) to write for the space business. I willingly enrolled in my first math class for the first time in 15 years, and started the slow slog toward a second bachelor’s degree: dummy algebra, dummy trig, dummy physics…etc. I was doing it, but it was taking me a long time and again I wasn’t having as much fun as I thought I would. Fortunately some understanding person in the guidance office at Valencia Community College pointed out that University of Central Florida had a master’s program in technical communication. It would only take three years, I’d have a better degree, and there was no math required!

  Three years later: program completed. Along the way I finally got technical writing jobs within Disney (“He’s going for a master’s; he must be serious!”), and a year after the M.A., I got a job proposal writing for a defense contractor in Alexandria, VA. Switched companies briefly when my boss got fired and he hired me along to his new employer, then started looking for tech writing jobs in the space business.

  The point of all this was not to provide an exhaustive personal history but to show how convoluted and long a path someone with a liberal arts degree sometimes has to take if they want to get into a technical discipline. Lockheed Martin, which had a plant a couple miles from my home in Orlando, was not interested in hiring me fresh off my B.A. because I was an English major; what the heck did I know about space? They were similarly condescending when I went back with my M.A. in hand. They felt that they needed engineers who could write, not an English major who was interested in technology. Which is how I ended up working for a mid-size defense contractor outside Florida. The other big companies on the Space Coast never even bothered replying.

The other thing is, my interest in space did not result in pursuing a job in a STEM discipline, or even encourage me to take more STEM subjects as a student. I had to reach the tender age of 28 before I decided to go back and work for the space business, and then I ended up pursuing a career as an English major because, again, STEM classes failed to inspire me.

  So what sort of lessons can be derived from this extended anecdote? I hesitate to generalize because, as my friends and family often point out to me, “You’re different.” Nevertheless, there are challenges that STEM educators (and my friends at NASA) need to consider before pushing the notion (or expecting the outcome) that “Interest in Space + Studying STEM Subjects Very Hard automatically = Aerospace Engineer or Scientist.” The hard facts are these:

  • Not everyone has the aptitude for, or interest in, STEM studies or careers.
  • Good teachers matter, not just for the struggling students, but also for the high achievers. Even if you have an interest in STEM, if your teachers can’t inspire or reach you, you will become disenchanted and move on to something else.
  • There are multiple ways to acquire the skills necessary to work in STEM jobs, and they don’t all require advanced degrees, though that was the path I took. We are, as a nation, now super-saturated with degrees, and even if you have a degree, that’s no guarantee that you’ll get a job in the field you want. I was the same space-enthusiast English major in 1991 that I was in 2003, but I had a Master’s degree, and major aerospace companies still did not want to hire me because they didn’t think I could be a technical writer. I had to take a three-year detour with a smaller company who was willing to take a chance on hiring an English major to write proposals for them and then do a lot of non-profit, non-paid writing for the National Space Society. THEN I could go back to NASA and be taken seriously enough to write papers for the space program.
  • The primary thing that got me to my current job writing for NASA was dogged persistence and a belief that my dream was a) achievable and b) worth pursuing.
I got where I wanted because I had someone inspire me to follow my dream, and I was willing to put in the work to make that dream a reality. So, yes: I was inspired by the space program as a kid. However, that did not lead me to become an engineer or scientist of any stripe. The system is not set up for people like me.

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