Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What should I study?

My aunt asked a question on Facebook that deserved a longer answer:
We recently had churh camp and while i was there talking to some of the kids,they had no idea what they would like to do in the future to support themselves. I mentioned that you were in the buusiness that had to do with the space station. Wow did their ears perk up.They had never even thought about it. They asked me to ask you what classes should they be taking in school to help them to get into this profession, or if you could recomend a link on the computer they could check it out.

I see two questions here.  
  1. What classes should students take in order to work for NASA and/or on the space program?  
  2. What classes should students take in order to become an engineer?

I'll tackle them in order.

What classes should students take in order to work for NASA and/or on the space program?  
The short answer is, whatever classes you enjoy and can become good at.  The space program needs people with all kinds of skills.

Remember that, according to the research behind Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, it takes ~10 000 hours of practice to become really good at something.  That's regular practice for 10 years.  I was not great at math as a 2nd grader, I earned a "C" and my parents told me that "C" was not acceptable.  I struggled with long division as a 5th grader.  But by continuing to work hard and practice, I became good at it.

The impression I got from my college interviews with NASA, both for co-operative education and full-time positions, was that, for students, NASA really seemed to focus on GPA, as in looking for 4.0 straight-A students.  That...or perhaps I just wasn't enough of a pest to their Human Resources team... (not my story to share)

  • If you want to be an astronaut, here is the NASA site with all the information.  People selected as astronauts have usually held advanced degrees in STEM fields:  Math, Science (including Medical Doctors), or Engineering.  NASA also accepts Educator Astronauts.  Homer Hickam also has good points to make about this that I suggest you read.
  • If you want to work at NASA as a civil servant, there are a lot more options to study.  NASA jobs are listed on the Federal USAJOBS website. Requirements vary depending on the position.  The jobs that usually come to mind when I think about NASA are the engineer and/or scientist positions, but the truth is that NASA also needs technical writers, public affairs specialists, people who understand business, finance, human resources, even historians and artists.
  • If you want to work for NASA as a contractor, there are again many options to study.  This NASA site lists the contracting companies at each NASA center.  This Florida Today article gives an idea of the kinds of Shuttle jobs that used to exist, and will return again. Once again, the contractors I've worked with the most have usually been engineers, but certainly not all.  Most manufacturing of space hardware is performed by contractors or subcontractors.  Contractors also have the usual supporting services: Finance, Human Resources, Business, Communications.
What classes should students take in order to become an engineer?
The first thing I need to say about this, is that there are multiple paths to becoming an engineer.  I've known people who:  
  • Began a career as a Technician, used their corporate benefits to complete an engineering degree while working full-time, and then got an engineering job within the company.
  • First completed a Music degree, then discovered that jobs for musicians are not so easy to find, so went back to school and earned an Engineering degree.
  • Enlisted in the military, then used their G.I. Bill benefits to earn their engineering degree.
The AAUW report "Why so Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics" discusses how some universities, particularly Historically Black Colleges and Universities, actively recruit students with aptitude for science or math to change from other majors to Engineering.

The "traditional" route* has been to study as much math and science as you can throughout high school, preferably including Calculus.  

For Math:  I did not have a solid understanding of Algebra in the 8th grade.  Therefore, I took Algebra I as a Freshman, then both Geometry and Algebra II my Sophomore year.  I doubled up as a Sophomore in order to get to Trigonometry as a Junior and Calculus as a Senior.  If your school doesn't offer Calculus, see if a local community college does.  If Calculus isn't available to you in high school, take it in college.

For Science: My first high school offered a general science class for Freshmen, and Biology for Sophomores.  If I remember correctly, my second high school offered two years of Chemistry.  I took first-year Chemistry as a Junior.  I think my third high school offered two years of Chemistry and two years of Physics.  I just studied Physics as a Senior.

If I had stayed at my first high school, I would probably have taken the classes I did (Chemistry as a Junior, Physics as a Senior).  I might also have taken Anatomy & Physiology, probably as a Senior.

If I had begun high school at the second or third schools, I would probably have had Biology as a Freshman, Chemistry I as a Sophomore, Chemistry II as a Junior, possibly Physics I as a Junior, and either Physics I or Physics II as a Senior, depending on whether I had doubled up on Science as a Junior.

Other high school classes:
  • English does matter for Engineers.  When I was earning my Bachelor's degree, many of my Engineering classes required a final project report.  
  • Foreign Languages are also valuable for Engineers.  I'm reasonably sure that studying Russian in college helped me to get my job.  
  • Speech, debate, or communications classes are good.  I probably made a thousand presentations over the course of my first engineering job.  
  • Computer classes are good, especially if you can do computer programming.  
  • Accounting can't hurt, at this point in my engineering career I need to learn more about the Business / Finance side of things.
  • Extracurricular activities are good.  I list several related to Engineeringon my Engineering Outreach page.  
Many high schools these days are working with local community colleges to allow Juniors and Seniors to take dual-credit classes.  For example, a senior might take a Calculus class at a Community College that counts towards both one's high school diploma and college credits.

In college, look for internships and/or Cooperative Education programs.  Experience makes a difference.  Also, if you really want to work in the Aerospace industry, look for opportunities to show your interest & enthusiasm.  Look for local chapters of Engineering Professional Organizations.  For Aerospace, particularly look at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.  As a Student, you might also look into SEDS, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

The summer between my Freshman and Sophomore year of high school, I volunteered with the Red Cross at the Base hospital.  When they listed the different departments the hospital offered, I spied "Aerospace Medicine," and said "I want to work there."  So I did.
Four years later, my Freshman year of College, when I started applying for cooperative education positions, I didn't get any bites.  I had a few interviews, but nobody hired me.  As an Electrical Engineering major, it was hard to put on a resume why I really did want a job in the Aerospace industry.
In the fall, I updated my resume.  That was the semester I began to learn Russian, so that went on the resume.  I also added that volunteer position in Aerospace Medicine.  That was the semester I got an interview, and I got a cooperative education job in the industry.  Which led to a post-graduation job in the industry.

* Actually, the older tradition was that the Engineering profession could be learned through Apprenticeship.  I'm guesstimating that before the 19th century, Engineering was primarily through Apprenticeship.  19th century to mid-20th, both apprenticeship and college degrees were valid.  Since about the mid-20th century, most engineers have had Bachelor's degrees.