University representatives also cited a number of factors that they viewed as disincentives for students planning their career directions. Notable on that list were evidence of program instability or waning support (e.g., due to cuts in support for research on campus or reports of declining job opportunities), lack of opportunities for hands-on experiences in the area, and noncompetitive fellowship stipends. Other factors that tend to discourage student interest include negative interactions with faculty, poor science training in the primary education system, and perceptions about whether a field is “cool” or whether the academic workload is particularly difficult.
Although universities are training grounds for future NASA scientists and engineers, NASA’s workforce competencies do not map directly to academic disciplines. Some competencies, such as software engineering and aerodynamics, match established university programs. The workforce pipeline can be monitored by watching the input and output of these programs, although the flow of new entrants to the workforce in these disciplines will be considerably affected by employment opportunities in industry or other sectors of the government. Other competencies are subfields within academic disciplines, or may appear in multidisciplinary university laboratories. Extravehicular activity (EVA) systems projects, for instance, may be located administratively in an aerospace engineering department, but the disciplines involved in developing EVA systems include mechanical and electrical engineering, robotics, human factors, and other specialties. Funding for research projects in these areas comes almost exclusively from NASA, and therefore NASA can affect, in both the positive and negative sense, the pipeline and the specific skills of graduates of these programs and the university workforce needed for continued basic research in the future. Still other competencies, such as project management, can be taught in theory in a formal graduate educational setting but require on-the-job experience to master.
Academia educates potential workforce employees at several levels. These are discussed below.
More than 2,700 engineering programs in the country are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).1 Accreditation standards are developed by ABET in collaboration with professional societies to set standards for what students should know and be able to do at the completion of their bachelor’s degree. According to the standards, students must understand and be able to apply mathematics, science, and engineering; be able to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems; work in teams; communicate effectively; understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context; and understand the professional and ethical responsibilities of an engineer.
Undergraduate students are being educated broadly within their disciplines, not trained for a specific segment of industry. However, NASA, by making project opportunities available at the university for undergraduate students, can encourage engineering departments to focus the design experiences of its students on problems of interest to NASA, and thereby to develop skills needed in its workforce pipeline. National design competitions, student rocket and balloon projects, individual scholarships and fellowships, and research grants that encourage participation of undergraduates are all possible strategies to attract student interest in NASA-related areas.
One particularly effective approach to recruiting undergraduates and accelerating their training is through cooperative education programs. In 2006 there were approximately 230 NASA co-op students who were drawn from about 130 colleges and universities. All NASA centers administer their own co-op student programs, with the largest number of students being at Johnson, Goddard, Langley, and Marshall. Half the centers support both undergraduates and graduate students in their programs. Until very recently, the co-op program was supported by center general and administrative (overhead) funds, but with the transition to full-cost management in the agency, some center co-op program administrators reported to the committee that program managers are showing reluctance to release scarce program funds to support co-op students.