OSU's Science Café draws attention to diverse opportunities at NASA

Science cafe

NASA isn’t for only engineers.

A representative for NASA’s outreach and education programs spoke at Oklahoma State University's Science Café on Tuesday, emphasizing the need for multidisciplinary teams at NASA and in the programs offered at OSU.

“It is so multifaceted,” Susan Stansberry said. “To get one astronaut into space, there’s hundreds and hundreds of people in different positions working behind that one astronaut. Everything from the finances to the communication to the design, prototyping, engineering, medical, nutrition.”

Many engineering students were expected to attend the talk, but instead students with a wide variety of majors, including economics, theater and nutritional science, were in attendance.

The NASA programs emphasize a need for the multidisciplinary drive. From Stansberry's point of view, the OSU Space Cowboys, a team of undergraduates working on research and design for NASA, do better when there are students with a mix of majors working together.

Even with programs at the high school level, such as the High School Aerospace Scholars, students like Anne Van Dyke, an aerospace and mechanical engineering freshman, are able to experience the need for other skill sets. While still in high school, Van Dyke took part in an online class and worked with rovers, pressure tests and other aspects of what NASA does at Johnson Space Center.

“We needed everything," Van Dyke said. "I worked as a finance officer for my team. Some of the interns I met while I was up there were finance majors or marketing majors. I met a psychology major who worked with the Orion space shuttle.”

That person’s background in psychology allowed them to work with engineers in designing the best placement of buttons in a ship in case an astronaut panics.

“Just because you are not an engineering major or a math major or a physics major, they take as many education, communication, economics majors,” Stansberry said. “Those interns are very valuable down there … I’ve just been amazed at how many internships there are for college kids at the different NASA space centers in every different discipline … There really wasn’t anybody in this room in any discipline that wouldn’t fit right in with some activity going on in NASA.”

For many people, it is a surprise to see the employees of different educational backgrounds working at NASA, but it is needed to get more perspectives on projects. Haleigh Woodbridge, an aerospace and mechanical engineering sophomore, understands the needed diversity of viewpoints.

“It’s good to have both perspectives because engineers, they build things and they understand the mechanics of it, while sometimes they don’t understand the impact it can have on the world,” Woodbridge said. “I grew up always wanting to be at NASA. I chose engineering because I thought that was the only way to get to work at NASA. I never really thought that someone who’s not in STEM would want to work at NASA, and I never realized that NASA is more than just a bunch of engineers in a room.”

Taking the risk and seeking out the diverse opportunities is what Stansberry wants for the students who strive to work for NASA and other organizations.

“This is exactly what I wish I had done as an English major undergraduate is taken a risk, like stepping out there and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know anything (about) this space stuff, let me check it out,’” Stansberry said. “Instead, I kind of stayed in my own lane, and that is really not how to play the game anymore. Being much more diversified, and realizing the disciplinary silos that we sort of force you into are artificial and that’s not how the world works.”