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Growing An Organic Workforce: A Space Foundation Perspective
By Bryan DeBates, Vice President—Education, Space Foundation


The United States is in trouble—according to the May 2016 jobs report (CNN Money), there were 5.8 million job openings that month that went unfulfilled. This is an indication that employers can’t find enough qualified individuals to fill those openings.

Let’s take a closer look at what impacts our industry. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reports that the U.S. will produce one million fewer STEM professionals over the next decade than will be required if the graduation rates keep to the status quo. STEM occupations are projected to continue to grow, but unfortunately, our education system isn’t producing enough graduates. Why is that? Ironically, that question has been asked for more than two decades.

At a hearing before the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (U.S. Space Program Benefits, 1992), Congressman Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin expressed his views on: (a) the cuts in the NASA budget, (b) student science and mathematics test scores, and (c) the importance of students choosing a career in science. He warned, “The space program is one of the things that does that [excite students]. And if we should neglect the space program, we are going to see fewer and fewer students go into math and science, and we are going to pay the price for that, maybe not next year, but in the decades ahead.”

He proved to be prophetic. Student assessment scores in science and mathematics have not improved as desired over the past three decades (Gonzales et al., 2000). As a result of the low scores and a low interest in science and mathematics, there has been a shortage of qualified professionals in the engineering related fields that has reached crisis proportions (The President’s Commission, 2002).

The members of the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching (2000) warned: The goals and action strategies we suggest may be seen by some as too great a reach, by some as not bold enough. We are convinced, however, that if they are ignored, our children and our nation will soon pay the high price that always accompanies apathy.

In addition, at the 2003 National Space Education Workshop, Pelton, Johnson, and Flournoy (2004) reported that the attendees met and discussed the plight of science education in the U.S. in order to analyze and discuss new initiatives as well as glean suggestions from several entities involved in science education in the United States.

Notable participants included the (a) Air Force Institute of Technology, (b) American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, (c) General Dynamics, (d) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (e) National Space Society, (f) Office of Management and Budget, (g) The White House, and (h) the Space Foundation.

Their conclusions were based on the concerns addressed at the workshop, and they aligned with President Bush’s new space initiative. Among the concerns, the attendees recognized the failure of public education in the U.S. to provide students the necessary knowledge to be successful in science and technology. 

They also noted the lack of quality and appeal of science and technology instruction in public schools. This problem has resulted in a breakdown in the intellectual and industrial capacity of the U.S. which is a threat to national security and capability to continue as a world leader. This problem has turned students away from choosing careers in science.

They concluded that teachers needed to be trained better to incorporate space into their curriculum to make science more attractive to students. To that end, the Space Foundation embarked on a journey to create Space Across the Curriculum teacher professional development courses that infused space into the curriculum to create excitement in students’ learning. While thousands of teachers have been trained and tens of thousands of students have been impacted, it is just a drop in the bucket of the overall problem. Teacher training alone isn’t the solution.

What about engaging student programs? There have been amazing student programs that have sprung up around the country over the last couple of decades.

However, in an Aviation Week survey from 2013 which gathered information from aerospace companies, 9.6 percent of employees in aerospace and defense were eligible for retirement. That number was projected to increase to 18.5 percent in 2017.

The problem is that those companies will be unable to fill those openings with qualified talent. Twenty-two percent of respondents to the Aviation Week survey said that the shortage of scientists and design engineers was the most significant factor affecting their organization’s ability to expand operations or deliver to customers, and 35 percent said that a highly skilled workforce will be the most important element to their organization’s success over the next three to five years. Engaging student programs isn’t enough.

Student programs and teacher training haven’t solved the problem.

So, what is the solution?

At the Space Foundation, we feel that it is going to take more than just engaging programs for students and teacher professional development to start making a difference. What is the missing factor?

The key factor that has been overlooked is a community that understands the importance of STEM education and that strongly supports STEM education in its schools. A community must understand the critical role that space plays in their daily lives. Only then, will we make an impact. Only then, will we start to make a difference.

How do we start making that difference? At the local level we must:

• Develop a PreK-20 STEM pipeline
Grow an organic work force
Strengthen economic development

First, we need to start developing a PreK-20 STEM pipeline in communities through engaging programs and activities for students. When that pipeline is established, we will be able to start growing an organic workforce which is educated locally and stays in that community. When that organic workforce has taken root, the economic development of a community will start to strengthen. When that happens, communities will begin to support STEM education programs in their schools.

The Space Foundation has, this past year, created a program that is the instigator of this change. Called Space in the Community, SITC for short, we have combined 25 years of Space Foundation education programs into one encompassing outreach program. In following the Space Foundation’s mission—to advance space-related endeavors to inspire, enable, and propel humanity—this is what SITC looks like:

• Inspire students through Audience with an Astronaut™ school assemblies and hands-on activities
• Enable teachers through Space Across the Curriculum professional development
• Propel communities through events that are designed to educate them on the importance of space and supporting STEM programs

In addition, an enduring relationship is created between the Space Foundation and the target community through our International Teacher Liaison program. Through this program, educators have access to other master teachers from around the world that are also passionate about STEM. They will be able to share ideas with each other, as well as, get curriculum support from Space Foundation education specialists.

During our first SITC programs held in Erie and Colorado Springs, Colorado, we reached more than 7,000 students, teachers and community members. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, we impacted more than 7,000 students, teachers and community members.

During these two events we noticed excited students and teachers as well as community members who finally saw the light. Here is how the sponsor, Tulsa Flight Night, of our Tulsa Space in the Community explained the importance of our program there:

Kids can’t be what they can’t see, so the Space Foundation’s Space in the Community program allows them to see a NASA astronaut, firsthand! This program makes it easy to create enthusiasm for space exploration, with assemblies and hands-on activities for area elementary, middle- and high-school students,” said Bailey Siegfried, Vice President Global Marketing, NORDAM. “The astronaut and Space Foundation educators work together to provide ready-to-launch educational materials, promotional content and more. We have found Space in the Community to be great help as we strive to develop a STEM-literate local workforce for the future.”

Only when we combine programs for students, teacher professional development, and events and programs that foster community involvement and support, will we see an impact and pull ourselves out of this dark place.

For more information on how you can bring the Space Foundation’s Space in the Community program to your community, please contact Bryan DeBates, Vice President-Education, BDeBates@SpaceFoundation.org.

Editor’s noteThis article is republished, with permission, from Space Foundation’s SpaceWatch infosite.