STEM and Space Girl Scouts experiencing launch procedures in the STARS Facility at The Aerospace Corporation

A Message from Dr. Wanda M. Austin

Space and the Marketing of STEM

Take a moment and imagine you are a middle school science teacher.

It’s the first day of class. The students are shuffling in, full of energy, talking loudly about their summer adventures. They share pictures and videos on their smartphones with each other. They laugh, they reconnect with old friends, and nervously try to make new ones. The bell rings. The classroom quiets down. It’s time for you to begin.

What is the first thing you would say to your new students? How would you win their attention, while also getting them interested in science? How would you find ways to make meaningful connections between science and their general interests? How would you ensure that your class became their favorite?

There is no single correct answer to these questions – especially not the last one – but in my opinion, there are some essential characteristics that would define an effective teaching strategy for this young and easily distracted audience. The strategy would need to be creative and entertaining. It would need to be inspiring, and it would need to involve space. Yes, space, as in outer space – complete with stars, planets, and rocket ships.

Space is a tool that can be used to market STEM to every member of our society. It generates widespread interest and awareness in STEM and it has the unique power to transcend the age-old fear of math and science that discourages so many prospective STEM participants. In order to market STEM, it must be inspiring and it must feel relevant to everyone. Space can, and does, make that happen.

The STEM Problem

We are living through a period of incredible technological development, yet America is falling further and further behind the rest of the world in STEM education and STEM professional development. Here are a few statistics that support this alarming trend:

  • In 2012, there were 29 industrialized nations whose high school students performed better than U.S. students in math.
  • Based on 2010 census data, non-Hispanic black and Hispanic people make up around 28.6 percent of the U.S. population.
  • In addition, non-Hispanic black and Hispanic individuals account for 25 percent of overall employment. However, in 2009, only 12 percent of STEM workers were non-Hispanic black and Hispanic.
  • In 2013, approximately 25 percent of U.S. STEM workers were women; however women made up 48 percent of workers in all occupations.
  • As of May 2013, the annual average wage across all STEM occupations is $79,640 – 1.7 times the national average for all occupations.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that something doesn’t add up here. Why is it difficult to get Americans – especially women and underrepresented minorities – to thrive and excel in STEM when the potential financial rewards are undeniable? With strong wages and tremendous growth potential, the question remains: why do we even need to motivate our young people to take an interest in STEM? Shouldn’t STEM sell itself?

The answers to those questions are deceptively simple and result from one fundamental truth about America today: we, as a nation, do not do a good job of marketing STEM. It may seem like STEM should sell itself, but the fact remains: it doesn’t!

As a result, we need to change the way we talk about STEM. We need to find a new context for all of this fascinating work, research, and innovation. We need to make things more relevant, and most importantly, we need to make STEM sound as exciting as it actually is.

The Power of Space

STEM Visit

A visitor to the Aerospace labs discovers new worlds under the microscope

In my opinion, the marketing of STEM begins with space. From the dawn of human history, humanity has marveled at the night sky and has contemplated our place in the cosmos. Space represents boundless possibility. It sparks our collective imagination and will always serve as a catalyst for human discovery and invention.

In the middle of the 20th century, space served to energize this nation. It galvanized the American people in support of a common, unifying cause – landing on the moon. The moon landing was the most successful, and most widely seen, STEM advertisement this world has ever known. People watching television in 1969 caught a glimpse of something unimaginable, and they were inspired by it.

In the 47 years since the first lunar landing, we’ve seen funding for space technology ebb and flow, but the general public’s desire for exploration and discovery has never waned. As human beings, curiosity is one of our defining characteristics. We want to know who we are. We want to know where we come from and we want to know why things are the way they are. Space holds the answers to many of those questions. As a result, space will always serve as a bridge with which we can connect the general public to STEM.

Yet for the most part, people are under-informed about the value of space and many of their perceptions are inaccurate. They think that overall interest in space is drying up. They think that the development of space missions is impractical. They think that our

ambitions would be better spent working on solutions to Earthbound problems. To those people I say: “look at the big picture, space is one of the great drivers of innovation and inspiration on planet Earth.”

In this age of social media and seemingly limitless entertainment options, stories about space continue to trend. In the past few years we’ve seen the Internet abuzz with stories covering the new images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons space probe, the landing of the Rosetta probe on comet 67P, the bright spots on dwarf planet Ceres – and the list goes on and on.

Now let’s tackle the argument that space is impractical – a notion that couldn’t be further from the truth. To start with, there are literally hundreds of everyday technologies that were pioneered by the space industry. These include: LED lights, artificial limbs, temper foam, enriched baby food, even portable cordless vacuums! The challenges of space have always required us to invent new technologies and oftentimes those new technologies have revolutionized the way we live life on planet Earth.

Furthermore, it’s getting more affordable for entrepreneurs to get involved in the space business. Small satellites have started to level the playing field, allowing more and more people access to space.

For more than 20 years, The Aerospace Corporation has been at the forefront of small satellite research, and our scientists continue to explore the tremendous capabilities of this remarkable technology. The functions that can now be performed with CubeSats (miniature, cube-shaped satellites) include propulsion, imaging, sensing, and attitude control. In recent years, we’ve developed an increasingly capable fleet of CubeSats, which we refer to as “AeroCubes.” These AeroCubes continue to push the limits of possibility of space technology.

AeroCubes, and other small satellites like them, are changing the face of the space business, prompting new and exciting companies to enter the commercial sector. In 2014, Google paid $500 million to acquire SkyBox Imaging, a company that uses small, low-cost satellites to take high-resolution images and video of planet Earth. Other companies, including Planet Labs, are creating a tremendous amount of excitement among investors and venture capitalists. As you can see, the business potential for small satellites is anything but small.

Space is one of the keys to unlocking this country’s STEM crisis. It produces the practical solutions our world demands while providing the inspiration and excitement required to motivate young people and the public at large. It is essential that we continue to foster the love affair between the general public and space. We need to teach our children about space and let them know that working in the space business is a very real and attainable possibility. It may be only one small step in our effort to address a STEM crisis, but marketing space truly does have the power to affect real change in the way every person experiences and engages with STEM. One day that small step might just turn into a giant leap. It has happened before.

Dr. Wanda M. Austin has been instrumental in the creation of the STEM Endowment Fund, which is committed to fostering the next generation of industry leaders by providing financial and other assistance to disadvantaged students of the STEM disciplines. For information about the STEM Endowment Fund, please contact [email protected]