Stepping into STEM History

by Steven Strom
posted July 10, 2012

Aerospace project engineer Eleni “Sam” Sims shows a small satellite to students at the Pueblo of Laguna Middle School near Albuquerque.

Individual Aerospace employees have long been involved in mentoring activities for students with an inclination toward science, but most coordinated efforts to increase student interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) trace their origins to two events in 2006.

On Jan. 31 of that year, President George W. Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) in his State of the Union address. The ACI was intended to address deficiencies in federal government spending toward STEM promotion at all educational levels.

That same year, the U.S. National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy issued a report aimed at policy makers detailing 10 ways to improve the state of STEM education. The report’s major recommendations included: improving K-12 science and mathematics education; strengthening teachers’ STEM skills through additional training; and enlarging the number of college students majoring in STEM-related fields, which would ultimately result from increased interest among students at the K-12 levels. In spring 2007, several legislative proposals for STEM support were combined into the America Competes Act, which was signed into law in August.

The interest of the National Academies, combined with increased federal funding for STEM education, spurred the development of most of the STEM activities that we know today, although Aerospace and its employees had been active in the area for many years. In addition to classroom visits and student mentoring, Aerospace has sponsored the Robert H. Herndon Memorial Science Competition in El Segundo for middle- and high-school students since 1977. (To read about this year’s Herndon competition, click here.)

In 2000, a Herndon Memorial Science Competition was established for Washington, D.C.-area students.

President Barack Obama has continued his predecessor’s support for STEM-related funding and activities; since his election in 2008, the president has initiated the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to improve students’ abilities in STEM and provided his strong support to existing STEM efforts. The president’s 2012 budget allocates block grants to those states that improve teacher education in STEM subjects.

Aerospace began a more organized approach to STEM efforts in 2008. Today, so many Aerospace employees are involved in such a wide variety of STEM-related efforts that the roundup of recent activities that follows can only be viewed as a summary, and is by no means intended to be an exhaustive listing. The fact that there are too many Aerospace STEM efforts to list inclusively is a sign of just how much time and effort Aerospace personnel have devoted to the STEM effort.

Dr. Wanda Austin being interviewed for the Change the Equation/Roadtrip Nation STEM project.

On the national level, Aerospace has been involved with the Change the Equation (CTEq) program since it was founded by a group of CEOs in 2010 with the intent of mobilizing the business community to support improving the quality of STEM education. Recently, CTEq began collaborating with Roadtrip Nation, a group dedicated to educating youth about their possibilities for the future. Read about Aerospace’s involvement with CTEq and a recent CTEq/Roadtrip Nation stop at the El Segundo campus to interview Dr. Wanda Austin.

Aerospace has also been involved with MathCounts, which promotes mathematics among middle-school students; Great-LEAP (Greater Los Angeles Education-Aerospace Partnership); and the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Education Alley program.

In the realm of higher education, The Aerospace Corporation has endowed three college scholarships: two at the University of Maryland and one at the University of California, Berkeley. The James W. Plummer Scholarship at Berkeley and the Dr. Ruth Davis Fellowship Fund for Mathematics and Physics at the University of Maryland are intended for women and minority engineering and science students. The Aerospace Corporation Fellowship Fund at the University of Maryland is intended for veterans and the children of veterans in an acknowledgement of the corporation’s close and longtime work with the Air Force and out of respect for veterans of all the armed forces.

Aerospace sponsors FIRST Robotics teams on both coasts and in Colorado Springs, as well as a Botball robotics team on the East Coast.

As just one example of recent Aerospace employee STEM efforts in the Washington, D.C.-area public schools, earlier this year a Systems Engineering Ground Division (SEGD) team demonstrated an in-house-developed robot, “Tombot,” to a first-grade class at Richmond Street Elementary. Tombot was custom-built by Tom Kibalo using similar behavioral programming to that used in the commercial robot, “Roomba,” and is designed to mimic a number of autonomous behaviors. The SEGD team of Kibalo and Stephanie Danahy plans to continue its involvement with the STEM program by next visiting first-grade classes in northern Virginia.

Staff from the Aerospace Albuquerque regional office earlier this year visited middle-school students from the Pueblo of Laguna Middle School (LMS) in New Mexico as part of the STEM initiative and outreach objectives for the Aerospace Women’s Committee and the Aerospace American-Indian and Alaskan-Native Council. This was the second outreach activity with the LMS students as Aerospace personnel spoke with them about the space and missile industry and local area career opportunities as they progress through their college curriculum and beyond. More than 120 LMS students listened to discussions by Aerospace volunteers and watched videos from the Kodiak Launch Complex Space Test Program’s S-26 mission.

The Wilson High robotics team, sponsored by Aerospace, took first place in the citywide FIRST Robotics competition in Washington, D.C.

Aerospace’s sponsorship of STEM activities has already paid off some handsome near-term dividends. Recently, for example, at the first citywide FIRST Robotics competition ever held in Washington, D.C., the Aerospace-sponsored Wilson High School team received a first-place prize. But the real results of current STEM efforts will only be apparent some years from now, when the number of STEM majors in our nation’s colleges and universities register a noticeable increase, on par with the rest of the developed world.