OK, I’m fast approaching 62 and have inherited my parents’ snow white hair, so maybe I am beginning to believe we may have an impending “gap” in the aerospace workforce. I graduated from college in 1978 with an engineering degree and worked for many years in engineering and engineering management positions. At age 56, I retired, off to find other vocations. Apparently, I may be in the vanguard of this gap over the next 5 to 10 years, since 23% of all engineering jobs in the U.S. are occupied by people age 55 or over. Collectively, we need to find, nurture, and develop not only the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians but a robust pipeline of technical talent.
There are those who believe there is no shortage of students we graduate in STEM fields compared to the number of STEM-related jobs. To some extent, they are correct. However, there are regional shortages and openings requiring not only post-graduate degrees and expertise, but also U.S. citizenship. At many universities, the majority of graduate students in STEM fields are foreign nationals, which severely limits the availability of qualified U.S. citizens for government research in critical STEM areas. Certain STEM disciplines are experiencing more significant growth, as well as a mid-life drain that naturally occurs as people advance into management or otherwise find something different to do. Efforts to address a STEM workforce issue must consider all the factors that contribute to a shortfall.
In 2012, Rodney Adkins of IBM identified three actions to expand the STEM workforce in his article in Forbes, “America Desperately Needs More STEM Students. Here’s How to Get Them.” First, he pointed to the need to maintain enthusiasm for STEM in students as they progressed from high school through college. One way is to implement programs that instill “the skills and knowledge they need to continue their studies or transition directly into jobs,” as well as to “pair students with corporate mentors, who help guide curricula and provide real-world insight into industry trends.” Next, Adkins suggested the need for more women and under-represented minorities (URM) in the pipeline, while applauding the efforts of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME). Finally, he recognized the invaluable contribution of mentors, teachers, coaches, and parents in encouraging and sustaining the interest and dedication of students of all stripes in STEM.
Women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields, despite a myriad of efforts. The findings from the first U.S. News STEM Solutions convention in 2012 recognized they were under-represented and found that mentor programs help, as do hands-on learning opportunities. NACME asserts URM represent 30% of the U.S. population but only 12.5% of engineering degrees awarded. It has supported national legislation to recruit diverse candidates into STEM fields. Their purpose is “to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM [through] entities that provide online workshops, mentoring programs, internships, or outreach programs.”
Interestingly enough, technical prowess is not sufficient to obtain and hold a well-paid technical position. Richard Celeste, former governor of Ohio and former president of Colorado College, co-chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee when it produced the 2016 report, “Promising Practices for Strengthening the Regional STEM Workforce Development Ecosystem.” In it, he noted students need more than just STEM degrees to be desirable as employees. “People need to be skilled at teamwork, flexibility to think beyond a discipline,” Celeste said. “There are critical skills that go with that.”
Luckily, there are programs emerging which address many of these factors and approaches. One of these is StellarXplorers, the National High School Space Challenge, created and produced by the Air Force Association, a 501(c)(3) educational organization. The vision of the StellarXplorers program is to inspire and motivate pre-college age students and their educators to pursue studies and careers in STEM through a challenging, space system design competition.
Participation in StellarXplorers demands students expand and sharpen their skills in critical thinking, problem solving, communications, teamwork, and leadership. In addition, it provides training and certification on the use of a professional analysis tool, AGI’s System Tool Kit (STK), to solve the problem posed. Competitors work in teams of two to six to determine orbital parameters, designate spacecraft components, and select an appropriate launch vehicle, all while staying within technical and fiscal constraints, creating an educational experience where the students must bring to bear multiple STEM disciplines. In addition, the Finals competition includes a scored team briefing, which requires students to exercise critical communications skills. It is a direct, immersive practicum, using professional, aerospace software, thereby improving the technical education of the participants
StellarXplorers leverages the resources and experience of industry, government, and non-profit organizations, in concert with academia, to supplement existing curricula with genuine, transferable, hands-on skills. The program supplies a self-contained academic/education component accessed online as a curriculum supplement, as well as specific training in the use of STK. This provides relevant and stimulating addition to classroom learning with a hands-on, real-world application of science and technology that is relevant to students’ lives. Technical team mentors have the opportunity to share their knowledge in an endeavor that they chose as their life’s work, while inspiring the next generation of their own replacements.
In its three seasons to date, StellarXplorers has attracted a broad, diverse population. The students of the third season are roughly half minority, over a quarter female, and the majority of the teams are from rural and urban regions. This speaks to the intrinsic fascination people have for space, “the final frontier,” and the ability of the program to attract students from populations that wouldn’t otherwise know anything about aerospace and STEM.
With a focus on what STEM education needs to address and a careful implementation of exciting, engaging STEM programs, we can ensure a solid, continuing pipeline of students with the “Right Stuff.”
Stephen K. Gourley majored in astronautical engineering at MIT and has a Masters in National Resource Strategy. He has 32 years of experience in all aspects of the space business and is currently Director, AFA StellarXplorers Program.