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How NASA Is Increasing Equity In STEM Beyond Space Exploration


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hopes to inspire people to look into the skies and to their communities.

Recently, Black individuals in NASA’s workforce took social media by storm after sharing their headshots from the independent agency. The heartwarming posts reminded everyone of the importance of representation and fostering inclusivity, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Despite the fleeting nature of viral moments, NASA’s efforts for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are far more than just a snapshot. In 2023, the agency released an equity action plan supporting a presidential executive order focused on dismantling “inequitable barriers and challenges facing underserved communities.”

“We at NASA, as an administrator, never tell our story,” Shahra Lambert, NASA’s senior advisor for equity and engagement, told AFROTECH™. “And we have such great stories to tell, not just in our exploration, cosmos, and moon-to-Mars initiatives, but the story of our people. And the makeup of our people and the diversity not just of the person’s color, but the content of character and how inclusive we are as an agency.” 

STEM Pathways

As part of this plan, the agency is focusing on outreach to students and encouraging them to pursue careers in STEM. By doing so, the website mentions that NASA offers programs for high school and college-level students through its Office of STEM Engagement, better known as (OSTEM), which provides over 2,000 paid internships each year.

Through OSTEM internships, students can access hands-on training, mentorship, and career opportunities. Following completion, there is a chance for participants to present their findings to the department, and if chosen, they can attain job placement within NASA.

“We are very intentional with our tasks and our office of STEM engagement — not just OSTEM but really the whole agency,” Lambert said. “We are so keen on closing that STEM gap… We want to ensure that STEM and access to STEM are in the hands of everyone.”

Beyond the OSTEM program, NASA also connects with K-12 educators. With this, the agency partners with schools, after-school programs, museums, and science centers through its Next-Generation STEM programs.

Per the website, the program offers hands-on experiments and lesson plans covering topics, including earth science, aeronautics and flight, and the solar system as a resource for educators and their students.

“We are trying to find resources for the teachers to give into the hands of the students, but then we’re also trying to have portals and access for the students to have STEM on their own,” Lambert explained.

Diving further into the education space, NASA recognizes genuine innovation across all demographics and is tapping into Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).

For example, NASA’s website notes that OSTEM launched the Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) to invest in various institutions with underrepresented populations through multi-year agreements. The goal is to boost the research, academic, and technological capabilities of MSIs in STEM.

Additionally, NASA supports students in the institutions above through competitive awards to earn monetary aid. One of those competitions is the Wildfire Climate Tech Challenge. This challenge is to support concepts that will address climate change and the impact of wildfires. Most recently, it announced three winning teams for the challenge, each awarded $100,000.

Among its winners is Team Howard U, led by Howard University students Lauren Taylor, Amy Quarkume, and Joseph Wilkins. Their concept centered on a “fire-smart health guardian” to improve wildfire risk communication and air-quality monitoring. Relying on NASA’s data and advanced Generative AI in Natural Language Processing technology, communities would be able to make well-informed decisions, minimizing risk and preserving their health.

“We wanted diverse, inclusive, and innovative ways that we could actually try to address these impacted issues that are happening — of course, in the West Coast and other parts of the world,” Lambert mentioned.“So, with those MSIs, those untouched talents, we now have another pool of thinkers that are gonna help to basically change and address some of the pressing issues that are happening right here with our climate.”

Providing Opportunities For Minority Business

While NASA is actively strengthening the STEM sector, its equity plan has extended beyond the schools to support small business owners.

As mentioned in the plan, between the fiscal years 2021 and 2022, NASA committed $1.9 billion in various contracts to small businesses, including those owned by individuals with disabilities.

A news release recently reported that in December 2023, NASA signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) to provide minority businesses with access to NASA acquisition and developmental resources.

“There is a place in space for all at NASA, and I think we just have to get over the stigma that you have to be a rocket scientist to work for NASA. That’s not true,” Lambert noted.

“The opportunity is limitless for all to have a chance to be a part of the Artemis Generation,” she concluded. “So, I just implore everyone to believe that you too can work at NASA, you too can partner with NASA, and you too can be a part of the Artemis Generation just by looking at our website.”

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