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Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “Here Are Five Things That Should Be Done to Improve the U.S. Educational System”, With Space Foundation COO Shelli Brunswick

An Interview With Penny Bauder

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We need soft skill development balanced with hard skill development: Soft skills are needed for assessing situations, analyzing data, brainstorming solutions, thinking creatively, decision-making, solving problems, team collaboration, etc. This will raise agile solution seekers to solve future challenges and serve future roles that will evolve over time. Hard skills are needed that more closely align specific skill sets with specific jobs/careers. This will bridge students more effectively with immediate workforce opportunities.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelli Brunswick. Shelli is chief operating officer (COO) and executive leader for Space Education and Space Commerce initiatives at the Space Foundation. A visionary for lifelong learning from K-20 through career entry to exit, Brunswick joined the Space Foundation in 2015 after a distinguished career as an acquisition and program management leader for the United States Air Force, working both within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Brunswick chaired Women in Aerospace (WIA) from 2016 to 2019 and is the current chair for the WIA Foundation. At the annual Space Foundation Space Symposium, she hosts the Women’s Global Gathering, a mentoring assembly of executives and emerging professionals in the aerospace community. Brunswick graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix, and served as professor of acquisition management at Defense Acquisition University.


Thank you for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I joined the United States Air Force right out of high school, got my degree by going to school at night, and was selected to become an officer. I worked in acquisitions, primarily on space related projects. My last five years on active duty, I had the privilege of working as a legislative liaison to the House of Representatives. I wanted to continue in the space industry, to make a difference for the future of space education and innovation, and I found the perfect fit at the Space Foundation.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my assignment at the Pentagon, I made every effort to participate in as many things as possible. In D.C., that can be overwhelming. There are so many things going on, and you can’t be everywhere at once. One of those events was a night reception for senior Air Force executives that were several levels of supervision above anyone in our office. No one else was going to go, so I did. That turned out to be the connection that led to a job in the Sam Rayburn House Office Building right next to the U.S. Capitol — and the time of my life. I was assigned as an Air Force congressional liaison, representing the Air Force secretary and chief of staff to members of the U.S. House of Representatives and helping to secure the USAF budget. The lesson: Get out from behind your desk! Go the extra mile! Seek opportunity and be prepared when it comes along!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The most exciting projects I am working on right now at the Space Foundation are Space Education and Space Commerce initiatives to fill the workforce STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) shortage and innovation gap for the projected growth of the $400 billion space economy to $1–3 trillion by 2040. The space industry presents extraordinary opportunities for the next generation that span all industries including agriculture, medicine, public safety, telecommunications, transportation and more, and they impact societies around the globe.

Space Foundation initiatives include innovative and immersive programs to engage lifelong learners K-20, such as our Junior Space Entrepreneurship program and our New Generation Leadership program for aspiring young professionals as well as Destination: Bold Adventure, our collaborative online, virtual and regional workshops for entrepreneurs and underserved groups (e.g., women, minorities).

As industries relying on space technology are broadening and intersecting in exciting ways, traditional barriers to entry are disappearing. The profusion of opportunities are now accessible to a vast talent pool, from rocket scientists to project managers to welders — in virtually every community around the world. Simply stated, there is no better time to be a part of the space industry.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an advocate in the education field?

The future of education will be a collaboration of academia and subject matter experts from the community, associations, public and private businesses, incubators, and government agencies. I bring a broad perspective and deep vision to the education field, from traditional higher education to the U.S. Air Force to my current role as COO of the Space Foundation, in which we represent the collaborative future of education through our Space Education and Space Commerce initiatives.

With our daily lives increasingly reliant on space-based technologies, I understand the importance of lifelong learning and seeking new opportunities for education beyond core curriculum to fulfill the passions of students and educators as well as the jobs and careers presented by the space economy. As chair of Women in Aerospace (WIA) for the last three years and host for the annual Women’s Global Gathering, I also know firsthand the importance of recognizing and promoting equitable opportunities for underserved groups.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the U.S. education system?

The U.S. educational system is lagging behind the pace of change in job and career requirements needed to fill the workforce. A skills shortage as well as a technology innovation gap are limiting our economy.

For example, by 2026, 50% of U.S. jobs will require some level of STEM expertise, but universities are currently only graduating 15% in STEM. Similarly, there are 700K tech jobs open in the U.S., but schools are graduating only one-tenth of the computer science students to fill those jobs.

Who will fill these new jobs and commercialize innovations for the betterment of life on earth? How will students be prepared over the course of their education, and how will workers be trained, reskilled and upskilled over the course of their careers? These are important questions to answer. We have room for improvement.

Can you identify areas of the U.S. education system that are going really great?

The U.S. education system is making important strides to catch up with the rate of change in the job market and prepare lifelong learners for long-term employment. Here are some areas in which we are seeing pivotal growth:

  • A growing number of progressive school systems are partnering with third-party organizations, like the Space Foundation, their communities, and subject matter experts in higher education and private industry to expand their students’ awareness, access to space-based technologies, training for job and career paths, certification programs, and role models.
  • In our experience, large aerospace suppliers like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are providing sponsorships and scholarships to programs such as the Space Foundation Discovery Center and New Generation Leadership initiatives for aspiring young aerospace leaders. We are also working hard to increase apprenticeship programs.
  • There is an increasing awareness of the importance of hands-on and immersive learning experiences. The Space Foundation’s Discover the Universe and Explore the Universe programs are founded on the principles of immersive, hands-on training in space technology.
  • Opportunities for teacher professional development are critical, and most education systems are increasing their support. The Space Foundation’s Space Across the Curriculum program helps teachers integrate space-based technology into their daily curriculum.

Can you identify key areas of the U.S. education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

The U.S. educational system needs to continue to revitalize its approach to education with both what is taught and how it is taught to prepare students to be lifelong learners and valuable contributors for a sustainable workforce in the space economy.

  • Space education needs to be fully integrated into core curriculum. All facets of daily life are fully integrated with space technologies, yet today, space education is often relegated to after-school programs and summer camps.
  • Education cannot do it alone. They must collaborate and partner with private enterprise, communities, government agencies, and subject matter experts to build a realistic and pragmatic training foundation to inspire and prepare students.
  • Education needs to nurture lifelong learners, promoting and supporting a culture of owning one’s education and driving one’s destiny through multimodal, blended learning opportunities, such as DIY online, virtual seminars, regional workshops, hands-on immersion, peer-to-peer, certification, role-model inspired, and skill-building specific to workforce requirements.
  • Education needs to invest in building soft skills, such as creativity, problem solving and critical thinking. Technology and automation are rapidly changing the dynamic of work, so education must prepare students for jobs that haven’t even been thought of yet and those that will change dramatically through the course of their careers.
  • Education needs a better bridge to the world beyond the classroom. We must do a better job of recruiting role models that inspire students to pursue STEM degrees and mentor students about marketplace opportunities.

How is the U.S. doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

According to numerous studies and reports, the U.S. appears to be challenged relative to other countries in engaging young people in STEM. For example, the Lego/Harris Poll showed youth in the U.S. chose YouTube influencers as their top career choice and astronaut as last. Here are my thoughts on three ways we can increase this engagement:

  • STEM needs to be accessible to all students through clearer roadmaps to STEM-based jobs and careers; the current weeding out process around STEM studies can often be self-limiting, only accessible to the brightest, most determined, or wealthy, and this perception needs to change.
  • Hands-on, immersive experiences in the field are one of the fastest and most effective ways to increase STEM engagement, passion and pursuit.
  • STEM role models in all demographics and all industries can help to inspire all young people to pursue their interests in STEM.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

The lack of diversity in the space technology workforce has become a systemic problem — women in particular are an untapped demographic.

Women make up half of the U.S. labor force, but they currently represent only 20% of employees in STEM-related fields, even as research across sectors proves that the most innovative and productive companies are those that include women in leadership and maintain gender balance. A Bayer-commissioned study that surveyed STEM department chairs at 200 top research institutions found that women and other underrepresented groups drop out of their respective degree programs at a disproportionate rate to white males, even when they are well-prepared. They are also routinely steered in other directions by professors and advisors.

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said it best: “The need for full engagement in STEM by women and underrepresented groups goes beyond enabling individuals to fulfill their dreams of becoming a scientist. Our economic future relies on what we do now to nurture the STEM talent that will be necessary to meet the demands of an increasingly technological and knowledge-based economy.”

How is the U.S. doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

The statistics speak for themselves. The U.S. is not doing a great job at engaging young women in STEM subjects. Women account for only 20% of space manufacturing jobs and only 10–15% of aerospace engineers, despite government and private sector efforts.

Three ways to increase the number of young women in STEM subjects are:

  • Introduce STEM early to young women: Young women should be introduced to STEM as early as possible, before the teen years when they become more self-conscious and aware of gender differences. In the early years, test scores are equal, but as middle school approaches, science and math scores start to plummet.
  • Women in STEM programs need to be offered in all modalities: online, virtual, workshops, events, etc. For example, the Space Foundation offers a self-service webinar learning series for underserved groups, including women and minorities. A one-day workshop, called Destination: Bold Opportunity, provides immersive training into business opportunities with government and private space-based companies.
  • Women in STEM role models: For the past three years, the Space Foundation has held the annual Women’s Global Gathering event in conjunction with its Space Symposium. Participants hear from accomplished senior leaders as they share their insights on the important role of women in the exploration of space and space related industries.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

STEM or STEAM is not the issue. The issue is providing skill development that aligns to skill requirements and career opportunities in the talent economy, space economy, digital economy … etc.

Innovation is not limited to skills in science, technology, engineering and math. In fact, skill sets in communication, design, and visual arts are also needed to commercialize space innovations for applications across a broad spectrum of industries, from designing rockets to designing fashion.

There is increasing attention being given to “soft skills” — the human capacity for creativity, problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking — that are as important as STEM skills to prepare students for jobs and careers that we have not even thought of yet.

Bottom line, education needs to find a balance between preparing students for jobs yet to be defined for the future, while reverse-engineering training specific for jobs and careers needed today in the broad range of space-reliant industries. And then, education needs to look to the future to continue educating, reskilling and upskilling lifelong learners throughout their careers.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire U.S. educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

To envision the U.S. educational infrastructure of the future, here are the first five things that should be integral to the education system:

  • Partner collaboration between educational institutions and subject matter experts from the community, government agencies, public and private industry. This will up-level awareness, access, training, networking and mentoring with real-world experience.
  • Example: The Space Commerce team at the Space Foundation engages with communities, entrepreneurs, small to medium businesses, educational institutions, and incubators to determine needs and curate custom-tailored programs, workshops and events that further space technology innovation and open doors for participation and contributions. We recently partnered with an incubator and state university in Youngstown, Ohio, to conduct a space commerce workshop for students, entrepreneurs, innovators and small businesses to address the most common challenges in building space-based technology businesses.
  • Soft skill development balanced with hard skill development: Soft skills are needed for assessing situations, analyzing data, brainstorming solutions, thinking creatively, decision-making, solving problems, team collaboration, etc. This will raise agile solution seekers to solve future challenges and serve future roles that will evolve over time. Hard skills are needed that more closely align specific skill sets with specific jobs/careers. This will bridge students more effectively with immediate workforce opportunities.
  • Examples: We are seeing soft skills emphasized in the “flipping the classroom” movement, in which class time is interactive discussions, analysis, brainstorming, and problem solving, while lecturing, research, and data collection is happening at home. In light of automation and new technologies, we are also seeing higher education embracing new curriculums for skill building around AI, machine learning and data analytics.
  • Immersive, hands-on learning is essential to active learning, retention and nurturing curiosity.
  • Examples: The Space Foundation delivers space education beyond the textbook to more than 50K students per year by developing curriculums based in immersive experiences that make space technology come alive through Discover the Universe field programs and Explore the Universe summer camps. Our Space Foundation Discovery Center is one of the most advanced, space-based, educational centers in the world, featuring hands-on experiences in the El Pomar Space Gallery, Northrop Grumman Science Center, and the Lockheed Martin Space Education Center.
  • Integrating space-based technology throughout daily curriculum with knowledge and training for space innovation and its applications to all facets of life.
  • Example: In its Space Across the Curriculum program, the Space Foundation develops curriculum and training programs that have helped more than 10K teachers integrate space education into their daily core curriculum through hands-on activities. Case in point, for the 13th year, the Space Foundation conducted teacher professional development for educators in Charles County, Maryland, public schools. A weeklong program featured immersive experiences with space principles and a public community night featuring a former NASA astronaut.
  • Role models and mentors from public and private industry integrated throughout daily curriculum to inspire and deepen the understanding of knowledge to real-world implications.
  • Example: Founded in 2008, our New Generation Leadership program connects aspiring young leaders to top space professionals that can provide real-world career advice, guidance and job roadmaps. Program opportunities are conducted at our annual Space Symposium, attended by 15K space professionals, along with regional events such as the Small Sat Conference in Utah and IAC Conference in Washington D.C. In turn, NewGen Ambassadors mentor high school students in partnership with programs like Upward Bound.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s all about relationships. The success in my life has all been through relationships — collaborating with others to solve problems. I’ve been blessed with wonderful mentors and role models, and I intend to pay it forward. It’s all about relationships.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

It would be hard to narrow that list down to 100, much less one, but I would start with Melinda Gates. Her book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” is insightful and inspiring. She is committing $1 billion to promote gender equality. She is not afraid to look at big, hard problems, and she is not afraid to tackle them. The Gates Foundation, like the Space Foundation, understands that resources alone are not enough. We must have partners at all levels to create change in individual lives, impacting communities, and ultimately impacting the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

· Shelli Brunswick on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/shellibrunswick/

· Space Foundation on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/space-foundation/

· Space Foundation on Twitter: @SpaceFoundation ; https://twitter.com/SpaceFoundation

· Space Foundation on Facebook: www.facebook.com/SpaceFoundation1/

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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