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NASA creates the ecosystem that supports tomorrow's scientists

06/19/12 12:17 PM
There just aren’t enough young people sticking with the hard sciences. Leland Melvin, former astronaut and Associate Administrator for NASA’s Office of Education, mentioned this to an audience at the Enterprise Learning Summit 2012 in Alexandria, Virginia. Among American fourth graders, only three out of 10 science students and four out of 10 math students demonstrate a high level of interest and aptitude. By high school that number drops to only two out of 10.

Nothing less than our civilization could be at stake, according to Melvin. Currently there are over 1 million jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields going unfilled. The future will require even more of these high tech workers. At NASA alone, the average age of NASA’s staff
is about 48 years old and 45 percent of their workforce is over age 50. It is critically important to develop young people who are trained in STEM, because that’s where the best, most interesting ideas come from.

“Those kids could be the doctors who save your life,” said Melvin, “... or planting the American flag on Mars.”


There are not enough qualified STEM teachers and there are limited resources available to train them. NASA is working with both private and federal groups to create 100,000 new certified STEM teachers. Because of the agency’s budget limitations, NASA is partnering with private industry, non-profits, and even celebrities like Will.I.Am to attract kids to STEM fields.

NASA has a special role in this effort. “[We contribute] high-quality STEM educations using our unique capabilities and assets that no one else has, Department of Education doesn’t have it, Energy doesn’t have it,” Melvin said.

And what is the best tool NASA has? “Stupid astronaut tricks.”

Melvin says watching videos of astronauts doing cool stuff in zero gravity … blowing giant water bubbles, floating candy and catching them … gets kids really excited about STEM. “[We’re] using the lure of space and connecting [it] to what students are doing every day. They play sports, they play video games.”

Melvin stressed the importance of the first two years in college. Only 16 percent of high school students go to college in STEM fields, and only 12 percent graduate with STEM degrees. NASA offers fellowships, scholarships and internships to college freshmen.


Part of NASA’s mission is to reach out to students who are not typically encouraged to excel academically because they are underserved. Will.I.Am and NASA sponsored a group of former gang members to one of FIRST Robotics’ Competitions for grades 9-12. The students built their own robots to fight in the competition. One inspired participant burned off his gang tattoos so he would not embarrass NASA.

“So you have transformed a kid from belonging to a gang to feel a part of something. Now they’re part of something much bigger than themselves as a STEM-ist,” Melvin said.

Melvin cites a lack of engagement, discipline, and belief in kids as the reasons that there are so few young people interested in STEM education. “There’s so many kids that we give up on because they have failed … I think about the space program. How many rockets failed before we got the one that worked right? That’s who we are as explorers, as inventors, as creative beings.

“How do we get these people connected in ways to allow them to feel that they have a part in this civilization?”

—Leland Melvin is a former astronaut who serves as the Associate Administrator for NASA's Office of Education. Visit  http://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/about/index.html to learn more about nASA's STEM Education program.

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...For Josh Bersin, President and CEO of Bersin & Associates

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There are many circumstances that can create challenges in a learning organization’s budget. Of course, the economy leads the list of causes, but there are other contributors, such as consolidations, mergers, adding additional charters without commensurate increases in budget, and major shifts in an enterprise’s strategy.

Here are some ways that learning organizations are using to survive and thrive in these challenging times.

Tip #1: Change the virtual-to-classroom mix

Many organizations suggest that the ideal ratio of virtual and classroom training is 80 percent virtual and 20 percent classroom. There is just no better way to train masses of people, especially when they are spread out over multiple sites. But instead of hiring hundreds of trainers, or maintaining expensive travel budgets, organizations are turning to virtual delivery to deal with declining budgets and expanding needs.

Alice Muellerweiss, Dean of the Department of Veterans Affairs Learning University (VALU) described her opening hand of cards this way at the Enterprise Learning! Summit in March 2012: “In January 2010, when I first came over to the V.A. Learning University, I was given a budget, told that I had 16 people, and that I had to train 135,000 people in the first year. And three months were already gone.”

After the initial shock, she said her wheels began to turn. “I couldn’t just go build schools and travel people. I had to change the way I thought about delivering education.” In response she turned VALU into an almost completely virtual learning organization.

Tip #2: Leverage other people’s courseware

Courseware falls into three tiers:

>>Tier 1: “Vanilla, out-of-the-box” courses like standard training for Project Management, Microsoft, Oracle, and a host of similar offerings;

>>Tier 2: “Slightly Customized” courses, which might be my own organization’s particular implementation of an SAP or Oracle product; and

>>Tier 3: “Proprietary” courses which might be “our secret sauce,” or training on my enterprise’s latest product offerings and services.

As you move up the tiers from vanilla to proprietary, the value of the courseware to an organization increases substantially.

Armed with that knowledge, I approached a vendor of mine who was a provider of thousands of courses in the Tier 1 category and asked the vendor to allow me to “slightly customize” each of their courses to meet my organization’s specific needs.

These were small changes, like adding my company’s unique security requirements or our own project management methodology, but they were necessary for the courses to be meaningful in my organization. The upgrades allowed the generic courses to have the impact of a Tier 2 or Tier 3 learning solution.

The vendor’s initial tendency was to resist, explaining that their off-the-shelf courses were their intellectual property. But after I explained that I would probably never be able to get rid of them once their courses were a core part of my own course offerings, they eventually relented.

Our net savings were substantial. We were able to shave 80-90 percent off our curriculum development time. So look around at other departments and agencies, as well as vendors whose courseware you can leverage.

Tip #3: Leverage a common technology platform

“Consolidating our agencies onto one LMS platform … positioned us well for collaboration,” says Wendy Frederick, Chief, Learning Systems Management Division, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Independently, we’re not going to be able to accomplish what we want to. Resources are far outstripped by demand. The secret is to collaborate with other agencies to accomplish our goals.”

Sharing similar courses across multiple agencies is one kind of efficiency gained by having a common LMS platform. Some types of courses that might be shared include compliance training and leadership courses.

A less obvious benefit of a common LMS system is discovering that groups have a common demand for a particular course. For instance, several groups might have a need for Oracle training to fill a competency gap. Combining these groups could help you reduce the cost per student trained.

Instead of sending one or two people from each agency to the vendor’s class, you could arrange to have the vendor come to a common site to deliver that training to all of them. Instead of paying individually for 10 people (about $7500/day), you might find it much cheaper to have that course delivered in-house by the vendor (about $3000/day).

—This article written by Joe DiDonato. For seven more tips, visit the Website www.2elearning.com.

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...For Carolyne Matseshe-Crawford, Head of Global Contact Center Strategy Services, Orbitz Worldwide

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Comparing what you need with what's available in the marketplace is the key to finding the right product.

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Pamela Aigner, Director of Online Programs for Westinghouse Electric Co.

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When Government Elearning! magazine asked C.L.O. Kristin Watkins why learning at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is so successful, here’s what she said:

1) What specifically about

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For Liviu Dedes, Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness & Development, North American Food Hospitality and Facility Services.

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It's Just as Important to Support Learners Before and After They've Completed a Course

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