Science & Engineering

USRA Infusion Looks To Give STEM a Boost

With an eye on increasing the number of students interested in science, technology and engineering degrees, the Universities Space Research Administration (USRA) has secured $10 million from NASA to manage, enhance, and expand the Education Associates Program (EAP).

The EAP was formed to address a critical shortage of United States students enrolled in and graduating from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs and to give NASA a flexible workforce augmentation option by providing internships to talented university students and faculty engaged in STEM studies and education.

Through the new partnership, the USRA entered into the five-year, $10 million agreement with NASA's Ames Research Center. One of 10 NASA field installations, Ames is located in California's Silicon Valley. With more than $3 billion in capital equipment, 2,300 research personnel, and a $600 million annual budget, Ames plays a role in most NASA missions.

Ames also is a leader in nanotechnology, fundamental space biology, biotechnology, aerospace and thermal protection systems, and human factors research. The facility's research in astrobiology, for example, focuses on the effects of gravity on living things and the nature and distribution of stars, planets, and life in the universe.

Based in Columbia, MD, USRA is a private, non-profit corporation founded in 1969 under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. The organization's membership comprises 104 universities in the United States and abroad that have graduate programs in space-related sciences and/or engineering.

Focused on space-related technical competencies, expanding knowledge, and developing technology for the benefit of the academic community and space-related industries, USRA parallels NASA's mission to "pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research." The organization develops innovative research, technology, and educational programs; promotes space policy; and develops and operates premier facilities and programs by involving universities, the private sector, and governments.

According to Sheri Klug, program director for the USRA and project administrator for NASA's Education Associates Program (EAP), the new alliance is expected to boost the number of students enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and math programs and give them opportunities that could lead to future NASA jobs.

Klug said this particular alliance is different from and more flexible than other NASA higher education partnerships. "NASA has an entire portfolio of higher education programs, but this one is unique in that there is no specific 'session' planned," said Klug. "Instead, it's based on demand coming from scientists and engineers, who can turn to the program when they need to advertise an internship or search the applicant pool to find the talent that they need."

Through its work with a variety of other, similar education and workforce development programs, Klug said, USRA will also be able to establish important relationships between EAP and other programs (such as NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Program) in order to strengthen the aerospace/space science workforce development pipeline.

The new initiative will also facilitate NASA's ongoing need for up-and-coming technology, science, and engineering candidates who in turn will receive immersive training on some "really great projects," said Klug. "The students can get hands-on while finishing their education tract. It's a win-win for everyone who is involved, from the student to the USRA to NASA itself."

Using an online application process, students apply for the open internships across various fields. Scientists then search through the resultant database using keywords to find the right match for their internships. According to Klug, program participants will benefit from this flexible method of tapping pools of technical talent represented by students and faculty at universities and community colleges in order to meet workforce needs and enhance the workforce development pipeline.

With 100 students already participating in the initiative, which was introduced in March, Klug said the USRA has "hit the ground running" by setting up a software program that connects scientists, engineers, and students in a seamless fashion.

"Our goal is to train the next generation workforce and to do it with the aid of technology in a simple, online fashion where no paper changes hands," said Klug, who said he sees a critical need for more students to get interested in science, technology, math, and engineering careers. "This gives students a chance to test out what it's really like to be an electrical engineer, for example, and offers them a chance to learn from the ground up."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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