Fixing Education And Outreach At NASA. Part 1: STEM Engagement Office

Keith's note: In a nutshell NASA's education and outreach activities are overlooked, underemphasized, and underfunded; scattered and unfocused; and are simultaneously duplicative and non-complimentary. This is nothing new. It has been this way for decades.

The NASA STEM Engagement Office used to be called the NASA Education Office but NASA changed it to satisfy the demands of the Trump Administration who tried to defund it year after year - but Congress always put the money back. The Trump folks are gone but the name remains. "STEM" is almost always used with the word "education". To say "STEM Engagement" is like referring to ice cream as a "frozen dairy product with flavoring" when everyone else just says "ice cream" but we all know that NASAese is a hard habit to break.

No one managing the NASA STEM Engagement Office is a formally trained education professional - starting with the Associate Administrator. This is no big deal if the office functions in backwater mode - where no one really cares what they do. But we are talking about the preeminent space agency on our planet. This Administration seems to be inclined to bring science and knowledge back into the way we run our society. Think of how often the equivalent if college education gets wasted every time a NASA contract has a daily cost hiccup. You would think that the agency is thinking of a total overhaul of its education and outreach - with a budget that can make that happen.

That said, if President Biden can put an actual teacher in charge of the Department of EDUCATION then NASA can change the name to reflect what the office does. With a person holding PhD in EDUCATION who is also First Lady one would think that this topic gets discussed at the dinner table in the White House. You'd think that NASA would sense an inherent green light to go a head and fix this situation and staff the organization with education professionals and give it a budget commensurate with its important role.

That said, NASA does do a lot of good education stuff. The hard part is figuring out what they do and why they do it - and how they tell if they are doing the right thing.

Leaving Out More Than You Include

Ok, so you want to know how many students and educators NASA's education activities reach. That's the whole point of the education office, right? Sounds simple enough. It is not. Unless you dig deeply the NASA STEM Engagement Office website has no page titled "Audience Metrics" or "performance" "or Measuring NASA's impact". But there is a report "NASA STEM Engagement Highlights 2020". Before I start on this report - NASA's education and outreach efforts go well beyond that the STEM education office oversees - or reports on. But they are not exactly open about that fact. Indeed, most of the education and outreach efforts NASA does are done outside the oversight and funding of the NASA STEM Engagement Office.

The Human Spaceflight, Science, Aeronautics, and Technology Directorates have their own programs that are often not included. Every NASA center has outreach efforts that may or may not be included. And much of what NASA Public Affairs does has a strong public education component by virtue of how news is presented. In addition, virtually every mission has their own outreach efforts. Many efforts are not included in what the STEM Education Office describes. Indeed many are duplicative - often many times over.

No real effort has ever been made at NASA to collect all of this education and outreach information in one cohesive picture. Nor has a set of reliable metrics as to who the audiences are and what outreach has been conducted to reach these audiences. Moreover, NASA has never stopped to consider all of the audiences it is not reaching since it has a minimal feedback apparatus and an internal mindset that often sees the public in a light other than the way it truly is.

When you see these education programs described, by the NASA STEM Engagement Office or other parts of NASA, it is usually unclear who is paying for them, how much they cost, what the specific audience(s) are, what the metrics to gauge effectiveness are, and how follow-up is accomplished to see what the impact is. And when some of these methods and metrics are provided they are not consistent across these programs, are lacking in terms of detail as to how information was collected and analyzed, and no process is described wherein these programs are evaluated individually or collectively to see if NASA is doing the right things - or not. And you'd expect some reporting back as to whether NASA is not doing the right thing. If NASA is not doing the right thing and a project needs adjustment or perhaps termination, then how should NASA go about fixing the things that need fixing?

And NASA talks about "engagement" in its metrics but it often does not define what "engagement" means or, rather, NASA uses the term to mean everything it does everywhere. There is a big difference from a program that spends an entire day immersing a student in a topic, and a video on Youtube, and a 30 second visit to a NASA trailer at a county fair.

Audiences: One Size Does Not Fit All

There is a lot of stuff crammed into this website - and it is aimed at various audiences and reading levels. But you cannot tell what the intended audience is for each of these things by the icon or the link. You have to go there to see what it is and even then the audience is not always clear.

If you look at the upper menu you will see audiences which offers "media", "educators", and "students" as options. One would think that these links would take you to materials actually are tailored to the audience they are supposedly aimed at in terms of format, language level, links, etc. Guess again. These links simply lead you top pages that have a subset of the exact same content on the main website - the same collection of things mentioned a moment ago. As such a 3rd grade student is reading the same stuff that a reporter or a teacher is reading when they click on "student". And if a reporter happens to click on some interesting links they may end up with coloring books.

Someone needs to hire professional educators to go through this website and curate the content and make various versions of materials that are actually based on the needs of specific grade levels and intended audiences. Oh yes: more than 30 million Americans have some form of hearing loss. 12 million have visual impairment. 12 million students speak a language other than English at home etc. This website has no obvious way for these students, their parents, or teachers, to find resources that cater to their needs and I see no certificate of Section 508 compliance. Lots of people are falling through the cracks.

NASA's Search Engine Can't Even Find NASA STEM Engagement

If you go to NASA.gov or other pages on NASA's website and type "education" in the agency-wide search box in the upper right hand corner the search results that you get make zero mention whatsoever of the NASA STEM Engagement Office. The first search result you get is About the Speakers Bureau. The other top search results point to subpages that have little direct, current relevance to what NASA Headquarters is doing in education. I gave up trying to find a search result that points to the NASA STEM Engagement Office after 4-5 pages of NASA.gov search engine results.

Indeed, if you search for "NASA STEM Engagement" the main link to the office's home page does not even show up until the bottom of the first page of search results. But if you type "NASA Education" on Google the top result is the NASA STEM Engagement Office. Something is seriously broken in NASA's search engine - and with NASA's overall website design.

Keith's 22 March update: When I wrote this and you did the search this is the result you got (screen grab). Now, when you do the search you get this (screen grab). But if you search for "NASA STEM Engagement" you still do not see the HQ office anywhere in the top results just this (screen grab) How strange that no one noticed - or cared - that the NASA search engine was broken like this - until I pointed it out - while sitting in my basement. Yet they only fixed half of the problem when they had a chance to fix it all.

Strategic Goals And Objectives Without A Strategic Plan

This 71 page NASA STEM Engagement Highlights 2020 is meant to cover all of what NASA STEM does (even if the STEM Engagement Office does not actually cover all that NASA does education-wise) so I understand that it is not supposed to include lots of lists of schools and numerical spreadsheets. It does highlight a lot of things and often gives a link for more information. But if you take what is on the education office website and what is in the report they are organized in totally different ways, include and omit things that each other covers, and often refer to efforts out of synch in a temporal term with one another.

The report mentions "Strategic Goals and Objectives" but no description is offered as to how they are used to formulate or evaluate what the office does. So, you ask, why have these things if they are not followed. Maybe they are - its hard to tell. Are there any programs that were discontinued because they did not meet these goals and objectives? One would assume that there are - or is it that everything that NASA does on the spot and perfect at inception?

And as for "Strategic Goals and Objectives" that is the sort of thing you'd expect to find in a "Strategic Plan". NASA loves to put out documents with these words in the title - even if the document has no strategy or plan. So, where is the NASA education report with the strategic plan that outlines what NASA needs to do in terms of education and outreach, how that connects to the agency's charter, what requirements placed upon it by Congress and White House direction, and how the agency integrates its programs with other agencies and the Federal government as a whole? Absent a formal strategic plan where is the formal agency guidance as what to do and why? Or is this "Strategic Goals and Objectives" stuff just words that people think up because it sounds like there actually is a strategy?

Bad Math And Big Omissions

The report mentions lots of statistics but never defines who the participants are i.e. there is no list of "organizations" or "institutions" mentioned or referenced at another location". NASA just says "here is what we do". Page 6 gives some high level numbers about NASA's outreach and effectiveness except that the report itself does not provide material that adds up to match the numbers with some things paid for by its budget and other things paid for by someone else's budget. Indeed if you add the money numbers that are given in the report the sum exceeds the NASA STEM Engagement Office budget. And the last time I checked the "M" in "STEM" is "Mathematics".

There are lots of things included in the report but there are glaring omissions. The report mentions the "App Development Challenge" (no link mentioned but here it is) which is focused on the U.S. but makes absolutely no mention of the wildly successful NASA-sponsored NASA International Space Apps Challenge with teams competing from "26,000 participants from nearly 150 countries". How can an education report from NASA possibly *NOT* mention the International Space Apps Challenge? Answer: stove pipes. The NASA STEM Engagement Office has nothing to do with this other Space Apps event - so why mention it. In so doing the NASA STEM Engagement Office has made a conscious effort to deceive anyone reading this report. I say 'conscious' since I am assuming that they know about Space Apps. If they do not know about the International Space Apps Challenge then that is another issue to take them to task for.

Incomplete Reports And Bad Websites

Even though there is a report, if you go to the Partnering with Partnerships and Collaborations from the main web page you are asked to click on "next page" 7 times to slog through the topic wherein NASA explains how and what collaborations are but they never mention a single actual collaboration that NASA has. Nor do they ever mention this report. Yet the report has a lot more detail. What's up with that?

If you try and find some performance metrics on the website i.e. how many students NASA has reached or plans ot reach, where they are reached, how they are reached, and what the result of being reached is, well ... there is no page or link for that - unless you happen to stumble on it by clicking a bunch of times through the Partnerships and Collaborations pages to this page which talks about some things NASA did - somewhere - with someone - in some past year - for an undefined reason.

Lines like "NASA partnered with a digital textbook provider to infuse NASA content into a textbook with a distribution to over 800,000 teachers." are somewhat pointless. What was the digital textbook - is it online? Will this be done again? If it will be, then when? (everyone is working and studying at home right now). Where was the text book distributed (states, cities, schools etc.)? What NASA content was "infused"? What exactly does "infuse" mean in this context? Did NASA write the textbook? Did NASA work with authors of textbooks? Where the textbooks reviewed and accredited?

Then there is "NASA partnered with a coding platform developer to offer a series of K-12 NASA-themed coding challenges to students worldwide. Over 15,000 students from classroom and home environments participated in the challenges." Who was the platform developer? When and where was the Challenge? Where there winners - if so, then who won and were press releases issued? Who were the judges? Where were the students located? Was there a follow-up to this activity to trace student interests, career choices, apps, etc?

This is interesting: "NASA partnered on a traveling, live hip hop stage show that visited middle schools across the country to deliver NASA content in an entertaining instructional format. During the partnership period, the cast performed before 455,000 students in more than 1,150 schools in North America." Are there videos of this presentation on Youtube? Where did the traveling hip hop group go? "North America" is usually used to mean the U.S. and Canada - otherwise you'd say United States, right? Or did the NASA hip hop road show go to Canada too? What is the name of the group? Are the group members educators, engineers, or scientists? How did NASA count the number of students? Was there any follow-up after the visit? Where were the schools located? "1,150" sounds like an exact number, is there a list of what schools were visited? Did the schools provide feedback - if so is it online?

But if you look at the NASA STEM report for 2020 some of this information is provided. So why doesn't the STEM Engagement Office website reference - or link to - what is contained its own report? One part of this organization is totally out of synch with another. That is not helpful when the agency is trying to put forth a resource that explains how NASA conducts its education responsibilities.

I'll stop here.

In Summary

This is just a cursory overview of how messed up NASA education or STEM Engagement is. I will be taking further looks into how the various NASA mission directorates, missions, programs, and centers pursue their own paths - paths that are sometimes collaborative, often independent and also commonly overlapping with what the NASA education folks at HQ oversee.

Moreover - education and public outreach is something that all missions need to do. The NASA Public Affairs office does too. So too does NASA legislative affairs, NASA's small business offices, NASA's international affairs office, etc. And I will be looking into all of that too. And while NASA thinks that it is reaching the citizenry, truth be known, vast swatches of the country are underserved and overlooked when it comes to outreach. A lot of that has to do with the people who do education and public outreach inside of NASA - often by the seat of their pants - based on old assumptions, lack of data, and paltry feedback from the real world.

"Good enough" is not acceptable when you are landing on a planet or pointing at a star. "Good enough" should not be what NASA's education and outreach efforts settle for either.

- Earlier education posts

Keith's 22 March update: I got an email from the NASA STEM Engagement Office. They want to do a Zoom visit to talk about what I wrote since they say that some of the information is outdated or wrong. So I asked them to send me a memo outlining whatever errors I made and to correct them so that NASAWatch readers will know where I made mistakes.

FWIW I got everything in this article from their website - nowhere else. And as for talking, I have been through this rodeo a dozen times in the 25 years I have been ranting about education and outreach on NASAWatch. The net result is that the NASA people nod their heads when I talk, try and blame PAO or the mission directorates or Congress or not enough money or that a space monkey ate their homework. Then they check a box for having talked to me. But then nothing gets fixed. So .. I await their memo to see what errors I made - errors made using their public information.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on March 20, 2021 11:15 AM.

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