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The Young Generation and the Space Dreams of Tomorrow

By | June 24, 2010

      One of the main issues facing the space sector is an aging work force, and attracting the young people that will build, launch and operate the rockets, satellites and communications networks of the future has proven difficult. The sector has lost the appeal it once had and now faces increased competition in convincing future engineers that space is more relevant than ever.

      In this story, listen to in depth interviews from Jason Bates, Editor of, with:

      Concerns over the aging workforce is the number two issue for members of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), whose members includes U.S. manufacturers and suppliers of aircraft, space systems, equipment, services and information technology, says Daphne Dador, AIA’s manager, Workforceworkforce. “A lot of our leaders and companies are really focused on developing a qualified workforce for the future. As it stands now, there are certainly challenges for our workforce.” Among the challenges is that 38 percent of the U.S. aerospace workforce is 50 or older, with 20 percent of the workforce forecasted to reach retirement age in the next three to five years. “When it comes to pending retirements and the supply side, getting young people to work in this industry is a concern,” she says.

      Listen to more questions from Jason Bates’ interview with Daphne Dador, Manager, Workforce, Aerospace Industry Association.

      Before the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education in February, Rick Stephens, senior vice president of Human human Resources resources and Administration administration at Boeing and chair of the AIA Workforce Steering Committee, said the United States is “ falling further behind” in science and engineering education. “These are becoming difficult jobs to fill, not because there is a labor shortage but because there is a skills shortage,” Stephens said. “Our industry needs more innovative young scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians to replace baby boomers as they retire.

      Robert Bell, president of the World Teleport Association, is not as pessimistic about the current workforce, but “that’s not to say there are no issues. It’s more nuanced. In government-driven aerospace, I believe most of the concern is centered around NASA and the Department of Defense and their contractors who know their talent is getting old.” The real concern is that “young people are not really getting connected to the legacy of this business. The thing that makes the veterans so remarkable is they know they changed the world. I’m not sure that is getting passed down and lighting the flame in the younger people. To them, this is more of job and less of a calling.”

      United States

      Organizations and companies around the globe are working on improving the situation, and with many, it begins by spurring interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the youngest generations and keeping that interest alive at they grow and pursue college and then careers. “If we in the United States hope to retain our nation’s leadership in science, technology and innovation, we must immediately address the looming STEM skills gap,” says Stephens.

      One of the efforts that the AIA has helped developed is an industry-wide STEM coalition that includes contributions from other sectors such as information technology, health and entertainment. While these are the same sectors that the aerospace business is competing with for talent, the aging workforce also is affecting them as well, says Dador. “It’s one issue we all agree on, and the approach and attitude when we work with different industries is that a rising tide raises all boasts. Then we can go out as aerospace and compete for these individuals. We want to tell them aerospace is the best place, but if there is not enough individuals altogether, then it’s not as much of an impact as it could be when all industries are working together,” she says. All of the members of the AIA have different areas they focus on and programs they promote individually. AIA members made investments STEM education efforts in 2008 with organizations such as 4H, the Boy Scouts and the Mathcounts Foundation, says Dador. The AIA collects data on the various efforts to see where the investments are having the most impact. “When we did our survey, the companies on average invest $8 million to $12 million on these programs. Some of these companies are basically providing money to local science clubs, and it’s great to reach out to the community, but if there is all this money and there hasn’t been too much of an impact, we might want to reconsider how to better invest,” she says.

      One of the AIA’s more successful programs is its own Team America Rocketry Challenge for middle and high school students. The competition, conducted in coordination with the National Association of Rocketry, pits teams of students against each other in an effort to design, build and fly a model rocket that reaches a specific altitude and duration determined by a set of rules developed each year. For the 2010 event, student teams were challenged launch a model rocket to an altitude of 825 feet with a flight time of 40-45 seconds as well as return a raw egg payload to the ground unbroken without a parachute. The contest is designed to encourage students to study math and science and pursue careers in aerospace. The most recent version, held in May, pitted 100 qualifying teams that gathered in an area outside of Washington, D.C., was the eighth the AIA conducted and was won by a team from Penn Manor High School in Millersville, Penn., which will represent the United States in an International Fly-Off in July at the Farnborough International Air Show in England. The trip to compete against teams from the United Kingdom and France is sponsored by Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin provided $5,000 scholarships to each of the top three teams in the U.S. competition, and the top 20 teams also will receive an invitation from NASA to participate in its Student Launch Initiative, an advanced rocketry program.
      NASA also is facing “significant workforce issues” and is heavily involved in education efforts, says Jim Stofan, acting associate administrator for Education education at NASA headquarters. “We have a very high percentage of folks that are eligible to retire. If you look at where the bubble curve is, we have a much more seasoned level of experience among the 18,000 employees. This is one of our strategic issues, and we’re aligning our education programs with our workforce and diversity needs. We are working to find ways to create programs and define a new way to careers at NASA,” he says. NASA offers programs that run agency wide as well as programs that are specific to centers throughout the United States. There are internships at every NASA center, and the agency uses the best of those interns to return to campuses and try to spread the word about careers at NASA.

      Beginning this summer, the agency launched a new program, Summer of Innovation, a multi-week, intensive education opportunity for students who would not otherwise not have access to STEM education. The agency is partnering with four states, and NASA will track these students to track the results of the programs.Theprograms. The biggest challenge is how to measure the impact of the efforts, says Stofan. NASA tracks the number of students that participate in the various programs and the impact of NASA’s work. In 2009, 51 percent of students that participated in NASA fellowships or internship are employed in research related to NASA content and 20 percent have gone into STEM-related
      field but maybe not related to NASA, he says.

      The Colorado-based Space Foundation also is heavily involved in trying to replenish the space-related workforce, an effort that has to begin early in life because the younger generations have lost the magic that is associated with satellite work because the technology has become ubiquitous, says Iain Probert, the organization’s viced president, education. “The issue still remains about bringing all of humanity up to speed on what space brings to their daily life. … Part of the Space Foundation’s mission is public awareness of space and the benefits brings to humanity. When we look at education outreach, predominantly ours is pre-K through 12th grade students and teachers. I would say about 75 percent of our pre-K through 12th grade outreach is through educators. We believe we have the greatest effect on students through teachers that work with them on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

      Listen to more questions from Jason Bates’ interview with Iain Probert, Vice President, Education, The Space Foundation.

      One program that will be conducted for the fourth consecutive summer will see the Space Foundation conduct a course in Charles County, Md., schools that will provided classes for up to 240 teachers over a three-week period. The graduate-level courses will include rocketry, astronomy, Earth systems science, space technologies in the classroom, biological and physical research, and lunar/Mars-based construction. Another effort in the western suburbs of Chicago will involve astronomy courses for 25 sixth-to-eighth grade students and 25 middle school teachers. “Science has really been ramped up in state testing, and astronomy will be big feature in the middle school curriculum. Students and teachers will do their work, and each day, teachers and students will get together to talk about what is exciting about what they just learned and how it can be incorporated into the classroom. In turn, teachers ask the students what they can do.”

      The “crown jewel” in the Space Foundation’s education work is a middle school in Colorado Springs, Colo., near the group’s headquarters. The failing school was rebranded the Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy, and the Space Foundation works with the teachers at the school to entwine space and science throughout the curriculum. “Space and science can feature in English class, math class, geography class, geology class. What we are doing with the Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy is to link what the students are doing with math.” The students spent time this spring laying out a half-sized scale model of the International Space Station on the school’s football field, using math to work out the dimensions. “It’s impressive to see these young people who are not used to the concept of teamwork. It gets them really excited.”


      While some in the United States see the country falling behind in education when compared to the rest of the globe, Francesco Emma, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) education office, also says changes need to be made in the way science subjects are taught in school in order to bring young minds to the industry. “The issues related to STEM are quite important in Europe as, in the last decade, there has been a constant decrease in the number of students involved in this domain,” he says. “We recognize that attracting youngsters towards STEM subjects requires a change in the way science is taught at school. Space, with its innate fascination, represents a perfect tool to raise the interest of new generations. Efforts need to be done starting from pupils in primary schools though, because they feed upstream into the whole educational chain. It is for these reasons that the agency has engaged in wide project involving primary and secondary school students in Europe by developing teaching tools with the help of teachers that act as multiplying factors in the educational process.”

      While Europe has a myriad of cultures and languages, coordinating a European-wide policy in this area is not easy. “At the school level for primary and secondary education, we recognize that Europe has different education systems, therefore, rather than going top down to target students, we tend to use a bottom up approach,” says Emma. “We have a network of offices throughout Europe that work at the local level, but where we can share information. The European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) is our main project addressing the community of students and teachers of primary and secondary education. Five offices have been set-up so far and our ambition is to expand them throughout Europe.”

      The Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), the French space agency, has a key role in bringing space education throughout France. As France is one of the Europe’s main centers for space, this places CNES at the forefront of European education issues. “CNES has considered it important to develop specific activities directed at young people. From the outset we adopted a practical experimental approach to scientific research and space technologies,” says Anne Serfass-Denis, head of the Youth and Education Department, CNES. “For younger children, we use space to get them interested in science and technology, which both contributes to their scientific culture and encourages them to consider taking scientific subjects at school by making them aware of space through the activities mentioned above.”

      The changing times means organizations such as CNES need to find new means of reaching out to young people. “We have recently developed a Web site especially for young people containing information adapted to their school needs and links to appropriate centers of interest. We are well aware that we also need to approach young people through sites that have nothing to do with space, and we are working gradually towards this, though we no doubt still have a lot to learn on this subject,” says Denis. “CNES also thinks in terms of a wider public and we are developing a social media strategy using networks like Facebook, Twitter and Dailymotion with the aim of attracting a public that knows less about space activities. We have set up a blog entirely dedicated to the image of space, and we are developing tools for a more interactive relationship with the press. This strategy is already beginning to bear fruit, but a lot remains to be done. We should obviously like to target a much broader public than the young alone.”

      The U.K. government has giving a ringing endorsement to space-related activities, and wWith the recent creation of a U.K space agency, the next challenge will be to make sure the United Kingdom develops the next generation of engineers. EADS Astrium has been developing a program based around a curriculum for students ages 11 to 18. “What that does is that it involved a half-day visit so pupils can come in, which is based around the question of space and you and why space is relevant to you,” says Victoria Hodges, AOCS engineer, EADS Astrium. “They start off with a short 10-minute presentation about the company. Some local schools don’t even know we exist. We move into a quick activity called ‘Space in Daily Life.’ This is a written scenario based around a day in the life of a typical school student. They are asked to read through this scenario and highlight where they think space plays an important role in daily life, for example the weather forecast. We then take them through the scenario identifying the answers, this aims to give them a feel for some things they already know about — and maybe some things don’t. After that, we do a workshop with them to highlight how satellites are built. We call it the ‘Satellite Engineering’ workshop. There are 10 engineering bases, and at each of the bases, there are different pieces of hardware such as thermal blankets and pieces of satellite panels. They are encouraged to pick them up and investigate them,” and there are worksheets for students of different age levels to fill out.

      EADS Astrium is drilling down even further, “increasingly Increasingly doing more work in primary schools. We mostly focus on ages eight upward. We also occasionally focus on younger children,” says Hodges. “There, we do something called ‘balloon rockets,’ and we try and teach them the basic principles of rockets and use long balloon, and put little cardboard things around them. There is no math involved. It is more talking about principles and trying to get them to appreciate the theory, rather than doing sums,” she says. Other initiatives include programs about building satellites out of cardboard, paper, tin foil and selotape. “They have a payload (an egg) which they have to protect, and they have to cost it all up as well. They have to do a cost benefit analysis and trade off between different possible options. At the end, we have a competition and do a vibration test. Basically, we put them in a big box and get teachers to come and shake it quite violently and see whose egg survives in a cardboard satellite. Surprisingly, some of them do. There is a lot of cheering and shouting going on at that point. We can do that on-site and take it to schools,” she says.

      Asia and the Middle East

      The Asia-Pacific region in the area of the globe most often cited as setting the pace for math and science education, as emerging space powers such as India use their programs not to attract children to space-related careers but to identify the best of the thousands interested in working for ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organisation. “We have something like 31 percent of our population who are below 14 years of age. That makes something like 172 million children under the age of 14,” says VS Hegde, ISRO’s scientific secretary. “We have a number of programs to try and attract these children. We hold science clubs. We hold quizzes in schools. We conduct exhibitions. Now, all of these efforts won’t reach all of these young children, so a little a while ago, we launched a tele-education supported by an exclusive education satellite (Edu-Sat). ISRO launched the India Institute of Space Technology (IIST) to educate future engineers, and gaining entry into the institute is very competitive, as graduates are assured of having a job at ISRO. “For this year, we wanted to take some 350 youngsters from this program into our fold. More than 80,000 people wrote exams. That is the type of interest that the young generation has today to join the space program,” says Hegde.

      While large parts of India still are not connected to the Internet, a career in space still remains popular. “The young people that are connected, however, are showing an interest in space and space programs. A good number of Edu-Sat virtual classrooms are in urban areas,” says Hegde. The challenge for ISRO is to make the space industry more accessible throughout the country. “We want to make the Space program known in all corners of the country, but we need to work with the people to do this. This will bring more and more young talent into space. We are targeting many programs to reach out to the young people in the country. The subjects of space, science and technology are very exciting. We find that young minds in urban areas are highly attracted to this. When it comes to reaching out to young minds in rural areas, we consciously see that we are relevant to their livelihood,” he says.
      Elsewhere in the region, some countries do have to put in more work. Singapore is seen as one of Asia’s main communications hubs. With a strong terrestrial infrastructure and its main telco, SingTel, involved in the space industry, the country wants to be at the center of bringing new talent to the industry in Asia. Jonathan Hung, president, Singapore Space and Technology Association (SSTA), says first impressions count when trying to attract future talent. “For school kids, we try and show them new breakthroughs in aerospace/space and sciences in general. It really is constant exposure to new, innovative concepts to keep them fired up. It is also essential to get them interested in science at a young age. … We have to show them that the space industry has exciting opportunities. The recent economic crisis impacted many sectors, and space was similarly affected. Although the space industry might have longer gestation periods than other mainstream sectors, it is based on very strategic and real needs. It is a resilient sector, not one that will come and go overnight. This is a key message we want to leave with this generation’s youth,” he says.

      The SSTA has stepped up its education activities in recent years. “Over the last three years, we have been conducting the Singapore Space Challenge. This is an engineering/design competition. The aim of the competition is to deepen students’ knowledge in terms of space concepts and engineering. It is a full nine months long program codevelopedco-developed with industry partners and government agencies. The participating students range from 16 years old all the way to university,” says Hung.
      Like CNES, SSTA is looking for a more progressive Internet strategy, as it looks to interact better with young people. “We do acknowledge that the online platforms publicly available are not fully leveraged on by the association,” says Hung. “However, in terms of public outreach, the SSTA is making a two-part, 1 hour space documentary showcasing Singapore’s journey into space. The goal is for this to air on local and regional channels, reaching to the masses. Moving forward, our PR and marketing efforts will definitely leverage on new media, such as Facebook, Twitter and the like. SSTA’s public outreach team has got to keep up with information technology. At the end of this year, we hope to revamp our Web site to allow greater interactivity.”

      In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is increasing its focus on bringing through young talent to the space industry. The Emirates Institution for Advanced Science & Technology (EIAST), is working hard to engage students of all ages and bring them to the space industry. Ahmed Al Mansoori, director general, EIAST, says there is a good platform for young people to come into the space industry. “We have a culture to try and promote science and research. We want to encourage talent. We see this as not only adding value in the country but providing a platform for people to show more innovation. There are many universities and colleges in the UAE and youngsters are very enthusiastic about getting involved in science. We think there are many students who want to get involved in engineering, but not just space engineering. We are also going to schools to try and focus awareness on these issues. In the universities and colleges in this region, there is a lot of focus on engineering,” he says.

      The DubaiSat program, where students are helping build an actual satellite, is a source of great pride as well as potential inspiration to students at the school level. “We are working with the schools in terms of providing information on what we do as well as projects like DubaiSat. So we make sure we show that as part of the curriculum. We want to encourage youngsters about the importance of these projects and the good they do for the country. We have a number of awareness programs.  We also encourage schools to come and see what we are doing. When they come to the facility, not only can they see satellites, but also some of the processes involved in building the satellites, but we want to have more programs with schools,” Al Mansoori says.

      Al Mansoori is hopeful that EIAST can continue its pioneering work with the DubaiSat program and bring through the next wave of young engineering talent in the United Arab Emirates. “We need to work on a personal and cultural level so they can see the future. We want people to see the value of what EIAST is doing. One of the other main challenges we have is to expand the range of international partners we have. One important thing to consider is if you work in the space industry, you should not think of one community or one industry, you need to think about it in a wider context. We want to encourage young people to think beyond the box. A lot of things in space can be done to benefit humanity. We have the platform in the Middle East to make advances in these technologies. We have a duty to communicate this to young people and show them what we have something to offer, so they can be part of it,” he says.

      Listen to more questions from Jason Bates’ interview with Jim Stofan acting associate administrator for education, NASA Headquarters.

      Throughout the world, space agencies and associations are aiming to think outside of the box to attract young people to the space industry. This battle to engage these minds starts long before college, and it is one of the key battles the industry as a whole industry faces. As we head into a multi-layered digital and communications world, showing young people how satellite technologies underpin areas as diverse as climate change, broadcasting, military operations is a massive, and important, challenge.

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