As NASA’s associate administrator for education, Leland Melvin is responsible for the development and implementation of the agency's education programs that strengthen student involvement and public awareness about NASA's scientific goals and missions.

NASA Tech Briefs: I’ve heard current NASA education efforts described as an overhaul. What has changed, what will change, and what is needed to improve NASA’s educational offerings?

Leland D. Melvin: I don’t know if we’d say it’s an overhaul. I think it’s more of a tighter focus. We’re being physically constrained, we don’t know the President’s budget, and we’re really trying to determine what NASA is supposed to be doing in education. What is NASA’s role? We have limited dollars, so we want to make the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck. Historically, we’ve tried to cover everything from to K to gray with education. Maybe NASA’s role is to do a piece of inspiration, maybe to work on looking at middle school teachers and how to get them better prepared to inspire more kids. This process isn’t really an overhaul, but it’s more of a refocusing. There’s a workforce, a National Science and Technology Council committee on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education, which is looking at the entire federal agency STEM portfolio and strategic plan for the next five years. This came out of the President’s America COMPETES [Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology] Act, and we have a report due to him in January.

NTB: What kinds of subjects and topics are emphasized in these efforts?

Melvin: All of our efforts are involved with STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We want to make sure that teachers and students especially have the right tools to ensure that they can see themselves as being able to do anything that they put their minds to in STEM fields. We do hands-on, experiential efforts, including the Summer of Innovation where [students] build rockets, windmills, and wind tunnels, using their hands to build and solve problems. One of the things we’d like to do is keep the kids thinking about ways that they can apply themselves over the summer months.

For teachers, it’s to ensure that they have the right tools to better present difficult concepts, like astronomy or trying to describe the solar system to students. If we can better prepare them and maybe have electronic media that they can use to augment their lesson plans, that’s something that we can do with professional development for teachers.

Also, we have internships, fellowships, and scholarships, a one-stop shopping program that allows for students to log into one website to find out all the opportunities that we have across the agency at all the field centers.

NTB: Where do you think the gaps are? Are there particular subjects or topics that you think students or teachers don’t have as great of an understanding of?

Melvin: Some of the middle school teachers aren’t certified science teachers, and we can better help those teachers understand the tougher concepts. We have some information on our site that shows how math is associated with the current missions that we’re doing now. We can give concrete examples to keep the mathematics principles from being so abstract, to let them see that these are the kind of prompts that we’re using the math to work on.

NTB: How can NASA get kids more interested in science and engineering?

Melvin: The missions and the people that we have are the resources that really get kids inspired and excited. I’ve had an opportunity to talk to thousands of kids in my career at NASA. During the last shuttle launch that went up, I looked at some of the kids’ faces; they were just transfixed. It’s something that’s awe-inspiring. It’s hard to believe, as a civilization, we’ve built a vehicle that can launch from a launch pad, fly to the space station, land like a glider, and come back home. We use those assets, including some of the motivating and inspiring personalities and subject matter experts that we have, to help kids understand that these concepts are achievable if you stay focused, if you are disciplined, and if you work hard.

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.

The rocketry is amazing. The kids really like to see these rockets taking off. But also in the development of [research picosatellite spacecraft] called CubeSats, where we’re building experiments to go up on some of these sounding rockets that we send up from Wallops [Flight Facility, located in Wallops Island, VA].

To let them see that “We have a problem. We want you to solve it.” Sometimes they come up with the most elegant solutions, even more so than the adults. I think it’s important to give them a challenge, and give them the autonomy to go out and solve those problems without being prescriptive and telling them what they have to do.

NTB: Are there any particular NASA programs that you emphasize?

Melvin: One of them that we’re working on this summer is called the Summer of Innovation. It came out of the president’s “Educate to Innovate” initiative in trying to curb the summer slide that students get when they leave school for the summer and don’t really do much besides have fun with sports or athletics or something over the summertime before the fall school year. We give them hands-on things that they can build and develop and learn over the summer that will help them get ready for the fall and then be better prepared for future testing and so forth.

NTB: You co-managed the former educator astronaut program, which recruited teachers to become trained astronauts. What did you learn or take from that experience?

Melvin: One of the educators that I know from Georgia, she went back and got a Masters degree in biology in one year to make herself more competitive to get selected for that program. It was a great program for allowing teachers to become full astronauts, where they were doing spacewalks, robotics, just like everyone else. One of the things that I’m really proud of is that that program resulted in choosing three educator astronauts, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Ricky Arnold, and Joe Acaba, all of whom have flown successfully on space shuttle missions, and they’ve all done robotics. Ricky and Joe did spacewalks, and now Joe is preparing for a long-duration space flight on the International Space Station. So it’s a testament to the work that teachers do and the abilities that they have to show that it’s something that everyone can do if trained properly and if you choose the right people. I’m really proud of their efforts. This program is ongoing. Teachers can still apply to become astronauts in future selections.

NTB: What is your favorite part of the job so far?

Melvin: Seeing a child’s mind change from thinking that they can’t be a scientist or engineer and thinking that it’s too hard, to then figuring out that five years later, they’re going to college to be a mechanical engineer or an aerospace engineer. There are many students that we’re actually reaching and touching that sometimes we don’t even know about that are a result of the education programs that we have and the inspiring people that work at NASA.

NTB: What has been a challenging part of the job?

Melvin: One of the biggest challenges for everyone right now throughout the agency is with the physical constraints that we have with the budget. We take what we have, and we make the best programs that we can, and we inspire the most people that we can. I think that’s pushed us to be more strategic with our partnerships, to make sure that we have the right partners, that we can leverage the money and personnel that we have to do the most good with teachers and students.

NTB: What is the ultimate goal from an education perspective?

Melvin: The ultimate goal is to allow all students to have a dream and to believe in themselves, that they can build and design and develop and be inspired. When I think about the next propulsion system that will be built to take us to Mars one day, it might be from a student that received NASA funding to go to graduate school, or undergraduate school, or maybe it was the Summer of Innovation program. One of NASA’s biggest roles is to have the inspiration piece there to ensure that these kids believe it and that they can do it.

NTB: What got you interested in science and engineering, and what kinds of educational techniques did you find valuable?

Melvin: When I grew up, my parents were both schoolteachers and didn’t have a whole lot of money, so I had to be very creative in making my toys and building things. I remember there was a chemistry set that my mother gave me when I was very young, and I mixed these two dissimilar chemicals together and made the most incredible explosion in her living room. It resulted in a spanking, but it fueled my curiosity to become a chemistry major and then a material science engineer. It’s the hands-on experiential moments that are the most beneficial. I was talking to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson the other day about when his kids took a wooden spoon to all the pots and pans in their drawers. That’s an acoustics experiment. They’re understanding the different timbres of the different pots and pans. Sometimes we don’t allow kids to explore and develop and create. What I’ve learned is that inquiry-based learning and the hands-on, experiential learning are the best things to help you understand what it takes to be a scientist and engineer, and it brings on the most creativity and inspiration.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the August, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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