Leland D. Melvin, Associate Administrator for Education, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
- Monday, 01 August 2011
NTB: How do you get females, a segment of people not highly represented in the field, more interested in science and engineering?
Melvin: For people that are not represented highly in the sciences, like minorities and women, we’ve been using [entertainers] like Mary J. Blige and Donna Karan. We had an event up in New York recently, where we had girls from the Housing Authority come out and see some of NASA’s top scientists and engineers that just happened to be women. And we did a downlink from space with Dr. Cady Coleman, who was in space talking about her path to becoming an astronaut, and she allowed the girls to ask her questions. As we showcase more of the people that are within NASA, for the kids that are thinking they can’t be scientists and engineers, it will better turn the tide and get more minorities and women into those fields.
NTB: Now that the shuttle program is nearing its end, what types of careers, other than being an astronaut, can you point to for young people interested in the space program?
Melvin: At NASA we have 18,000 civil servants and 45,000 contractors that make up a myriad of areas of expertise, from accounting to legal. We even have someone who’s designing the nutritional content of the meals for the astronauts that are going up. We have medical doctors, we have flight surgeons, architects that are building and designing green buildings in our centers, and geologists that are looking at craters on Mars and other planets. At NASA, we have a myriad of occupations and any discipline that you can think of.
NTB: What is your role in designing and implementing these current education offerings?
Melvin: As the associate administrator for education, I help set the strategic priorities and direction for the agency’s education programs. We’re really trying to focus on strategic partnerships, leveraging the efforts of others. NASA is five percent of the federal STEM budget, so we partner with [organizations] like the Department of Education, NSF [National Science Foundation], and the [United States Department of] Health and Human Services that have much bigger portions. We see where our role fits in along with them to make a more unified approach to a systemic education program. I help to ensure that we have the right partnerships and set the goals for the agency as a whole with education.
NTB: What kinds of multi-generational initiatives require NASA to strengthen its education efforts?
Melvin: Sometimes children don’t think they can become a scientist or engineer because their parents weren’t involved in it, or they don’t have anyone in their communities or in their sphere of influence that they can say led or guided them to that role. With SEMA, the Science Engineering and Mathematics Academy, we’re actually telling the parents that you don’t have to be a scientist or engineer to raise an engineer. It’s about giving the parents tools to help their kids maybe see themselves in this light. As they use tools like Facebook and Twitter and the social media, which a lot of kids are involved with, we can show that NASA is pretty cool. Some of the missions we do, and the people we have, are very cool and exciting. We also have worked with entertainers and ballplayers like Pharrell Williams, the actor and rapper Mos Def, Mary J Blige, and also a number of other people throughout NASA -- using them to help tell the story of NASA and how STEM is in everything we do in this world. You go to an ATM and press the buttons: that’s STEM. There’s technology, electronics, there’s all these things associated with everything we do. Getting that message out there is very important, by using everyone.
NTB: Where do you need the most help when trying to maintain a pipeline of folks for the agency?
Melvin: I don’t think NASA can service the entire pipeline with the resources that we have. I think the most help will be gathered by choosing the right strategic partners, whether they’re federal, state, local, or even non-profit or for-profit corporations, to see where NASA fits in. Maybe it’s the inspiration piece. But I think having the right partners will help us go from the pipeline of K to gray. When I think of the pipeline, I think of grandparents that can be big influences in the development of their grandchildren, and even their children. And letting them see that they can talk STEM. I’ve seen grandparents that are on Facebook and Twitter. They’re doing these things, and can help their younger grandchildren see that these are the types of skill sets that you need to have the careers of the future.
NTB: In your experience, what are students most excited to learn about?
Melvin: Students are genuinely curious about everything, especially the younger kids. You can have them engaged by asking them to take a paper clip and make as many things as they can out of it. Robotics is a very big area that they’re interested in. We have a great partnership with Lego where we’re trying to get kids to build robots on the ground, while we’re building them in space, too, to show how the space environment differs from the ground, and how the design that you thought you might need on the ground would maybe have to be modified in space to do the same function.