NASA's STEM Strategy Is Not Very Strategic

Keith's note: Take a look at the NASA Strategy For STEM Engagement 2020-2023 which has been "Approved by the NASA STEM Engagement Council". For starters what exactly is the "NASA STEM Engagement Council"? It is overtly shown as having approved this document but the document never defines its role or function nor who is on the council, what their backgrounds are, and who they represent. If you search for it using the NASA search engine you get nonsense results.

But there is a NASA Advisory Council STEM Engagement Committee - which has more words in its name. I just happened to know this but non-NASA people might not. But NASA has lots of names for the same thing, so ... The council lists 7 members and where they work. There is only one female on the council and no bios of the members are available. The last meeting was 6 months ago.

This document is clearly written for a small audience inside of NASA i.e. the people who oversee what the STEM Engagement office does. It is mostly charts and short bits of text which highlight the important points - but never discusses them.

Also, when you get a strategic plan like this there should be some rationale behind the goals and objectives. Clearly NASA needs to focus on education. But the goals and objectives do not mention that they were formulated in response to ongoing needs or problems or deficiencies i.e. that there are places and populations in America who are underserved when it comes to NASA education and outreach activities. If you cannot describe the need then how do you justify these various things that NASA does?

There is a paragraph "STEM engagement in the context of NASA's Mission" but it clearly emerged de novo since none of the referenced plans mention any of this. It says "significant underrepresentation remains in areas critical to NASA like engineering and computer and mathematical sciences". OK, so there is a citation of a need but you cannot draw a wiring diagram between this statement and the goals and objectives that this document contains. Nowhere is there any mention of how audiences and communities are identified, targeted, and approached. One size does not fit all in this regard.

Broken Links To Important Reports

The introduction says that the document is in accordance with "Federal Strategy for STEM Education and Engagement (2018-2023), Charting a Course for Success: America's Strategy for STEM Education" which has a link attached but does not describe what this document says. Nor does it make any mention of even a minimal set of high level identified needs that this document addresses toward which NASA focuses its efforts.

But wait: the link is pointless if someone is just reading a PDF version of this strategy or reading a printed version. And the link they use is dead anyway since White House websites change with every administration, so ... you can find it if you Google a bit - here is a copy online at a non-profit website.

An Acronym Is Mentioned More Often Than Education Is

This 29 April 2020 document says that it "provides the context for STEM engagement within the NASA strategic plan" but does not say which strategic plan. This is important since it covers 2020-2023 i.e. now. One would assume that they mean the NASA Strategic Plan from 2018 which was baselined before a series of Trump Administration and National Space Council directives. In this report "STEM education" appears once. "Education" appears 8 times. If you search for these 8 occurrences of "education" then you will see that education actually receives no guidance - strategic or otherwise - in this "NASA Strategic Plan". So, it is easy, (I guess) to say that the STEM plan adheres to the NASA Strategic Plan since this agency-wide strategic plan document really offers zero guidance in this regard.

Of course NASA's charter and various authorization bills (codified in law) proscribe a lot of things that NASA is supposed to do with regard to education and outreach but this document seems to not take notice of - or respond to - what they say. And You can be certain that Congress remembers since they try and steer money to their home districts based on the guidance they have put into authorization and appropriations language.

This NASA briefing is a 9 page document. "STEM" appears 78 times. "Student" appears 47 times. "Learning" appears 16 times. The word "education" appears 13 times - 7 as part of the word "educational" and 3 times as part of a name. The words "teach" and "teacher" do not appear anywhere in this document. Nor does "disabled". "Diversity appears twice - in the same sentence in a chart. "School" appears 4 times - 3 times as tiny letters in a graphic. "Underserved" appears once.

I am trying to understand how an acronym like STEM appears 78 times and the word student appears 47 times but words like teach, teacher, and disabled are absent and underserved appears once. It is as if the document was written to agree with other documents and say STEM as many times as possible. Indeed, much of this document is government word salad.

What Do These Phrases Mean?

What does "authentic learning and research opportunities" mean? What about "mission-driven opportunities and collaborative initiatives"? To be certain the document does list a lot of things that can and be should done but it never explains why. And if you cannot explain why you do somethings you can't defend why you do not do others. And you have no guidance with which to decide what has more value and what has less. Or maybe that is in another NASA document that we are not aware of? You do not need to go into excruciating detail in a document like this but how you solicit and select and review things and then evaluate their relevance and performance should at least be mentioned. Who reviews progress? NASA? This council? Some external educational credentialing organization. Indeed, is any of this NASA stuff accredited?

And there is a bullet that says "Outcome-driven - Establish outcomes and define corresponding metrics and measures to demonstrate success." Go ahead and ask NASA for metrics for how many students, educators, schools, etc are contacted/engaged, how many types of interaction occur, what the target audeinces are and what actual population participated, what value was obtained from these interactions, how the interaction allows participants to enhance their skillset, what sort of follow-up is conducted, and which activities fail in one regard or another such that they need adjustment, discontinuation, or replacement.

There is another bullet that says "Use guidelines, strategies, frameworks, and proven practices informed by research, literature reviews, and/or evaluation to build the available body of facts (evidence) confirming program effectiveness and impact." But none of this is described in this document or anywhere that I can find on the STEM Engagement website. And again - the metrics that they post are incomplete and not always accurate. Maybe I need to start submitting FOIA requests to find this stuff. If they say that they use these things then they must use these things, right?

NASA Refers To A Report That Mostly Ignores NASA

There is another briefing "NAC STEM committee page titled NASA Advisory Council STEM Engagement Committee National STEM Update" dated 29 October 2019 on the NASA STEM website that refers to the same National Science and Technology Council report "Charting A Course For Success: America's Strategy For STEM Education" with a link content/uploads/2018/12/STEM-Education- Strategic-Plan-2018.pdf. Again, as mentioned above, NASA posted a link from the previous Administration's White House website that no longer works. I found another link here that works.

NASA has documents and pages on its current website that purportedly reflect its current stance on STEM and education policy. It only took me a moment to find the error and several correct links on two presentations. Editing PDFs and websites is easy. Why NASA does not do this is baffling. Bad links to reports that NASA cites as being important are pointless if they do not work.

Jim Bridenstine was a co-chair so you'd think that NASA stuff would be highlighted. NASA is almost absent. "NASA" is mentioned 6 times - 5 of the mentions are next to the names of people. The agency is listed along with lots of other agencies in a performance chart on page vii - and on that chart NASA only has 3 of 9 boxes checked while many other agencies do much better. A NASA project in Louisiana gets a box on page 20. That's it.

If you look at this the presentation - on NSTC this report - produced by the NASA STEM Office, NASA has excerpted lots of metrics regarding education and outreach - but they are not NASA metrics. So NASA knows what these metrics look like. But all NASA seems to want to say is "yea - what they said" since you can't find metrics like this for NASA educational activities.


NASA's education efforts have always been starved in terms of budgets, contorted by congressional set asides, not fully staffed, and outperformed by other parts of the agency who do their own education activities. There is no overarching education or outreach strategy for NASA. Let me say that again. There is a strategy that NASA claims is its STEM (education) strategy except large portions of the agency are either exempt or simply ignore it.

The wording in the report is clearly steered so as to echo the wording in other reports - all produced within the government. Policy wonks and government managers in Washington DC who only talk to one another. Little effort is made to phrase important findings and recommendations in plain language so as to be accessible and understandable to teachers who are not steeped in this cargo as well as elected officials and parents. Once again NASA has no idea who their audiences are and is lacking the skills to best communicate with those audiences. Publishing reports is more important than focusing on what they actually say and who they reach.

Real people - real teachers, parents, students - do not talk using the stilted, jargon-laden language used in these reports. NASA is not going to be a meaningful part of any education solution if they continue to talk over the heads of the very people they seek to serve.

Everyone you talk to within the NASA bubble will admit that this is the case, but no one ever tries to fix it. NASA could be doing so much more than it does - even with existing resources - if only it acted as one agency - not a bunch or competing fiefdoms with their own semi-selfish agendas and audiences.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on March 22, 2021 7:41 PM.

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