Wednesday, July 8, 2015

NASA Breaks the STEM Gender Barrier

The lack of women in STEM seems to be a problem everywhere except at NASA, an organization that gives women a platform to drive the conversation around the need for more women in the science.

For the first time ever, half of the astronaut class is women and today, NASA is offering new opportunities for female tech entrepreneurs. In fact, Dr. Ellen Stofan serves as the Chief Scientist of NASA. Deborah Diaz is NASA's CTO for IT, Teresa Vanhooser runs one of NASA’s largest facilities in the U.S. responsible for building rockets, and Dr. Tara Ruttley manages the science programs at the International Space Station.

NASA’s new user community called Datanaut Corps is unlocking opportunities for women entrepreneurs in the tech and maker communities to use the agency’s infinite gigabytes of open data to pioneer space-inspired data science. The program is emerging at an ideal time because according to a 2011 report by the Economics and Statistics Administration, women have seen zero employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000.

“For women in science over the centuries, our contributions to so many fields are there, but they are not talked about as much as they should be," Stofan told Fast Company. "So while most women in science have persevered by making significant contributions to every field, I think women in science today need to and are speaking up louder and louder to say, 'We are here, we are doing amazing science, and we are the role models for the next generation of STEM girls.’"

Datanauts was born out of NASA’s open-data priorities as a means to bring more women to the open-data table. The program is intended for women and men, but the founding class is made up of women to encourage other female techies and makers to take the "data leap," according to Beth Beck, Open Innovation program manager at NASA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

NASA’s Datanaut Corps Founding Member Jennifer Lopez is working to shape the direction of the Datanauts with NASA’s Open Innovation team, hoping to inspire future engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and young people to collaborate with NASA.

"We’re providing the tools and the outreach to enable more women [and men] not only in STEM to collaborate and utilize NASA’s open data, but we want the world to know everyone has access," she said. "You don’t have to be a developer or a coder or a scientist to participate. The more diverse the participants, the more opportunities we will have to find newer, more innovative solutions and approaches to using the data."

One of the top priorities of the Datanauts is to develop strategies with NASA to engage the broader community in using and studying these enormous data, which are in their highest form when the storytelling and collaboration humanize the numbers. The Datanauts class is currently helping the Open Innovation team understand the needs of their communities so they can create the kinds of engagements that matter most to them. There are five objectives for the program design including encouraging new data problem-solvers with an initial focus on women, advancing data science, building and enhancing the data innovation community of practice, enabling leapfrog skills development, and creating an environment to foster breakthrough innovations.

For the full program rollout, the Datanaut Corp team is aiming to build virtual problem-solving activities, such as online data treasure hunts, mini-data challenges, and next-generation community engagements including data dinner clubs and pop-up challenges where communities can gather for a few hours to discuss and analyze an issue or challenge. To kick off the founding class, the Open Innovation team gathered top NASA executives to share their stories about the twists and turns in their careers.

According to Diaz, communication skills of women that may be their strongest asset when working with open data. "Women are poised to significantly enhance the data science field with their innate ability to strategically analyze and communicate.”

About the Author: Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist at IIR USA, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. Amanda is the Editor at Large for several of IIR’s blogs including Next Big DesignSTEAM Accelerator , Front End of Innovation and The Market Research Event. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the technology industry. She can be reached at Follow her at @AmandaCicc.