Vaeros VP Ed Swallow: Inspiring STEM Education Through Space

Vaeros VP Ed Swallow (Photo: The Aerospace Corporation)

Vaeros VP Ed Swallow (Photo: The Aerospace Corporation)

What’s the next great frontier in technology innovation? For Ed Swallow, the answer comes down to two words: Space. And STEM.

“The marketplaces have changed radically, especially in the space industry,” says Swallow, vice president of Vaeros, a division of The Aerospace Corporation.

“New entrants in space launch, multiple smallsat constellations with plans to provide a wide range of affordable services to consumers, and the increasingly affordable access to space have created the ideal conditions for space to become the ‘next internet’ for creating value,” says Swallow, whose division provides systems engineering and integration solutions to a wide range of customers across civil, commercial, and international markets.

STEM Inspiration, Through Space
In the midst of this evolving marketplace, it isn’t just one company that will ultimately lead the change, it will take the entire industry, says Swallow.

That’s where space, fueled by STEM education, will play a critical role.

“I believe that space is a tool that can continue to be used to market STEM to every member of our society. In order to market STEM, it must be inspiring and it must feel relevant to everyone – space can, and does, make that happen.”

Critical Need for STEM
The need, adds Swallow, couldn’t be greater.

“We are living through a period of incredible technological development, yet America is falling further and further behind the rest of the world in STEM education and STEM professional development,” says Swallow, who also serves as chairman of the WashingtonExec STEM Council, and holds advanced degrees in physics, electrical engineering and systems management. “In 2012, there were 29 industrialized nations whose high school students performed better than U.S. students in math,” says Swallow, citing a figure from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Equally troubling, says Swallow, is the lack of growth in reaching underrepresented populations. “For example, according to the 2015 Aviation Week and Space Technology survey that I supported, the aerospace and defense market STEM workforce was 24% female 12 years ago – and remains at 24%,” says Swallow.

“Similar numbers exist for African Americans and Hispanics of both genders, while Native Americans make up an almost unmeasurable portion of the STEM workforce,” adds Swallow. Meanwhile, the United States trails behind in awarding STEM bachelor’s degrees; in 2012, only 19% of those who graduated with an undergraduate degree from a U.S. institution of higher education collected diplomas in STEM fields, according to the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators from 2012. Diminished expectations in science and math standards, fueled for decades by No Child Left Behind, have contributed to these deficiencies, adds Swallow.

Fostering STEM Reform
The solution begins with STEM reform that begins at an early age.

“The focus of STEM initiatives for many years has been at the high school level, but it was clear that they were only reaching ‘high-achieving’ students,” says Swallow. The critical juncture, he says, often occurs when a student would take eighth-grade algebra. Once a student opts out of taking algebra by or before eighth grade, says Swallow, it is not possible to graduate from college with a four-year degree in a STEM related field.

“You have to go back to fifth grade for decisions that lead to when algebra is taken in most schools, and the conditions for that decision go back to third and fourth grade – that is where the real crux of the supply side challenge exists,” says Swallow. “That is also where the decline in math and science literacy starts and it snowballs from there,” he says.

Equally important is a focus on the local level. “We need to bring laser-like attention to the needs of all students to get a quality foundation in math and science, as all good-paying jobs nowadays require literacy in both, to some extent,” says Swallow.

“When it comes to STEM – I’ve been saying this for a long time – you need a national strategy but you also need local action. The strategy has to take into account that the STEM problem in one community is radically different from the STEM problem just two miles down the road.”

Aerospace has a strong commitment to inspire future engineers and scientists. In support of that, the corporation established the Aerospace STEM Endowment Fund to support science, technology, engineering, and math education, which Swallow fully supports.

Advice for Parents
For parents, Swallow advises banishing the phrase, “I wasn’t very good at math or science, either.” By his estimation, those words can be the most damaging to a student’s aspirations. If you must utter those words, says Swallow, follow them up with, “But I wish I was, so let’s work together on it.” Secondly, Swallow advises fostering a holistic view – and nurturing all of a child’s talents.

“Too much specialization, even in science and math, is not good,” says Swallow. He points to his own personal experience. “I was a liaison officer for the U.S. Air Force Academy for over 20 years, and the focus there was not on bringing in the perfect SAT, valedictorian-type candidate – that was good but not sufficient,” says Swallow. “The candidate also had to have athletic and leadership accomplishments, be able to write well and make sound critical assessments of situations.”

To promote a well-rounded student, Swallow offers parents this advice: “Let the student play, help them lead, inspire them to learn and, most of all, build a balance.”

Learn More
So how can parents take the first step? For the third year in a row, Swallow will participate in the upcoming K-12 STEM Symposium on March 12th 2016.

“The hands-on exhibits and interactive engagements with students are the things I like the most, followed by engaging in dialogue with parents about how to get their students excited and attracted to science and math – with practical ideas that they can implement,” says Swallow.

Most importantly, adds Swallow, “We’ll bring more role models, for underrepresented populations to [discuss]exciting careers to inspire the next generation.”

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1 Comment

  1. Couldn’t agree more that we have to start early if we want to ensure a diverse, well-qualified STEM workforce pipeline. Corporate leaders are coming to recognize that tomorrow’ STEM workforce begins with early education. As Rick Stephens, former senior VP of HR and Administration at Boeing said, “We need to start early — even before kindergarten — to nurture children’s natural curiosity. It’s a first step in creating the skilled workforce that allows the U.S. to compete globally.” Looking forward to sharing that message at the upcoming STEM symposium!