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NASA DC Space Grant Consortium Impact at American University

Hundreds of students have received STEM opportunities, from internships to summer research programs

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The NASA District of Columbia Space Grant Consortium (DCSGC) was founded in 1991 and has been headquartered at American University since 1999. It is a NASA-sponsored consortium of DC universities and STEM organizations that supports NASA’s Mission Directorates through programs in NASA internships, fellowships, and scholarships; higher education; research infrastructure; precollege; and public outreach. Its current affiliates include academic partners such as Catholic University, Gallaudet University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, Trinity Washington University, and the University of the District of Columbia, as well as non-academic partners including the National Air and Space Museum, Space Satellite Professionals International, and The INSPIRE Project, Inc. The DCSGC lead office at AU oversees student support and program activities at each of these institutions.

Part of a nationwide program called the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, the DCSGC is one of 52 consortia, with one consortium in each state, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. The DCSGC lead offices are located in the Department of Physics in the Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building on AU’s East Campus. The DCSGC staff consists of Director Nathan Harshman, Assistant Director Megan Kemble, and Program Manager Eric Day.

This year, the 2020 President’s Award, the highest honor bestowed upon an AU undergraduate, was presented to Cheldina Jean, an environmental science major who was a DCSGC award recipient from several programs held in partnership with Underrepresented Students in STEM (USS), a group founded at AU with assistance from DCSGC. Jean’s academic achievement, leadership, and passion for service are what led President Sylvia Burwell to choose the Haitian-born Miami resident for this ultimate distinction.

DCSGC’s impact on American University students over the past 21 years has been immense. Since it began longitudinally tracking students in 2006, the DCSGC has supported 110 AU students with direct student awards and hundreds more AU students through participation in STEM programs where they received STEM experiences instead of funding.  

Some AU students have participated in NASA internships at various NASA Centers such as NASA Headquarters and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). The DCSGC currently has two students in a new pilot internship program at NASA Headquarters, developed by the DCSGC, where they are mapping out landing sites for future Mars missions, as well as a third student at NASA GSFC, who is working with scientists in the Ionosphere-Thermosphere-Mesosphere Physics Laboratory to develop the next generation of analysis tools for space science missions and models.

Other students have participated in the AU Faculty-Student STEM Research Program, where they work with faculty members throughout the academic year or summer on STEM research projects developed by the faculty. The DCSGC currently has five faculty-student teams working this summer.

Another student program is the AU Undergraduate Student STEM Summer Research Program, where students develop their own research projects and are provided with a faculty mentor to help guide their research. The DCSGC currently has ten student-faculty teams working this summer.

More recently, the DCSGC has partnered with the student group Underrepresented Students in STEM to support students in programs such as the HOPE Award Program, which provides funding for underrepresented students applying to graduate school for a STEM degree, and the Underrepresented Women in STEM Program, which provides funding for underrepresented undergraduate women in STEM.

Some student programs do not involve direct student funding. One example is the ThinSat Program, where a team of AU students and DCPS students built payloads and visited NASA Wallops Flight Facility for a behind-the-scenes tour in May 2019. Another example is the Summer Undergraduate and Graduate Experiences in Research (SUGER) Program, a lecture and seminar series that offers invaluable insight and resources to students and allows them to interact with guest speakers and learn best practices. This year’s SUGER program launched on June 10.

Since the DCSGC longitudinally tracks the students it supports, it has been discovered that AU students who have participated in DCSGC activities or received DCSGC funding have gone on to graduate school in STEM or to work at such places as NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , the Smithsonian Institution, and the US Navy. One of the reasons DCSGC students have such successful careers in STEM is because the DCSGC promotes and supports the publication and presentation of DCSGC student research at AU through avenues such as the Robyn Mathias Student Research Conference and the National NASA Space Grant Directors’ Conference. These experiences help AU students get influential jobs later.

The DCSGC also supports precollege programs at AU. One example includes the Optics Olympiad, where DC Public School (DCPS) students and their teachers come to the AU campus for a day of optics learning with fun activities like Jeopardy and a laser maze. Another activity is the DCPS STEM Teacher Training Workshop, where teachers receive stipends to attend a workshop on STEM fundamentals and best practices.  

The DCSGC also supports public outreach programs at AU. One example is the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017, where the DCSGC supported the distribution of eclipse glasses and hands-on activities not only for the AU community, but for others who came to the campus to experience the eclipse and activities. Another example includes the USA Science and Engineering Festival, where the DCSGC supports a demonstration booth manned by AU faculty and students every other year, which brings hundreds of thousands of people to the DC Convention Center to participate in hands-on STEM activities and demonstrations. Another example includes the Space Grant 30th Anniversary Celebration at the US Capitol in February 2020, where DCSGC Director Harshman and AU Physics Department Lab Director Jonathan Newport put on a demonstration that earned the renowned Henry Foundation Award for best presentation at the event.

The DCSGC has always been committed to diversity and inclusion, which has been recognized by NASA multiple times over the years. Most recently, in 2018, it assisted with the founding of USS. In August 2019, DCSGC Director Harshman was one of the few non-NASA guests invited to speak on a panel at the NASA Mega PI Meeting on diversity best practices, since the DCSGC’s support of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM is at one of the highest Space Grant levels in the nation. In January 2020 the DCSGC supported an address and discussion on diversity and inclusiveness at AU by the renowned Brian Chad Starks. Dr. Starks discussed social justice issues, best practices for inclusion, and how to reach and work with diverse populations.

The DCSGC has adapted to the COVID-19 era by temporarily re-programming all of its activities for the virtual world. Thanks to tremendous support and flexibility from NASA, AU, and all of its affiliates, the DCSGC’s programs continue to be a success.