Op-ed | The Next Generation of Next-Generation Activities

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Activities for and about young professionals and students have become increasingly popular at space conferences recently. This is great — the space industry needs to focus on cultivating the young talent that is replenishing its aging workforce.

After attending so many of these activities at space conferences over the past year, I’ve noticed they largely differentiate into three types: panels showing off the great things young people are doing, one-too-many mentoring sessions, or recruiting fairs.

The goal of these activities is to inspire and cultivate young people, but they seem to be missing something — they aren’t life-changing and probably don’t make as big an impact as their organizers intend or want them to.

Looking back on these activities, what I remember most are the incidental relationships formed with other students.

At the Satellite 2015 conference in March, I attended a mentor “speed dating” event where mentors moved table-to-table and spewed their advice to each round-table of eager young people.

I sat next to a young woman who had spent several years in the Navy and was now thinking of going to graduate school — but she’d just had a baby and was worried about “work-life balance” in addition to the familiar fear of succeeding in school after years away from a classroom.

I had been working at Planet Labs for the better part of a year and was taking a few months off to teach computer science at my alma mater, and was struggling to decide between two right decisions: staying in an industry where I was rapidly learning new skills and making an impact, or pursuing a Ph.D. where I could delve into research and really upgrade my brain and thought processes.

The mentors’ advice was valuable, but with so little time to talk and for them to get to know us, the advice was more like something we could read in a book; it was lacking the impact and relevance we were both searching for. The young woman and I started small-talking as we waited for the mentors’ business cards and ended up spending the next several hours exchanging experiences and advice. Our minds were blown. We were closer to what we were searching for.

In her book “Lean In,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg writes: “Peers can also mentor and sponsor one another. There is a saying that ‘all advice is autobiographical.’ Friends at the same stage of their careers may actually provide more current and useful counsel.”

This claim is evidenced in the feedback I have heard from young people about activities hosted for young professionals that put an emphasis on collaboration and networking between peers.

I recently hosted a leadership conference for Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), a nonprofit that empowers young people to participate and make an impact in space exploration. This four-day event was formatted as an “un-conference”: The agenda was created based on attendees’ answers to the essential questions, “What do you want to learn about?” and “What do you want to talk about?” prior to the event.

Virginia Tech junior Andrew Newman, a member of the SEDS-USA board of directors, said, “[The retreat] exposed me to more opportunities beyond just the traditional aerospace engineering track in space. I’ve made great peer connections that can be of mutual benefit as we all enter the space industry.” Just after the retreat, he decided to change his major from aerospace engineering to computer science — a decision that he said made him much happier and was a better option for how he wanted to contribute to space exploration.

Another board member, Miekkal Clarkson, a senior at Arizona State University, reflected, “I definitely left with a sense of purpose that I never quite seem to find from other conferences. While I do volunteer at these conferences and they leave me feeling very inspired, it is also a little overwhelming in the sense that all these companies/people are moving forward on a completely different level than you. This retreat differed because I was involved with the conversations, not an observer. I had a hand in the planning and debating, I can see and follow through with what was discussed, and I was on equal footing with my peers. We are individually invested instead of just watching and waiting for the results from the industry.”

I heard similar reports from students finding unique inspiration and direction from collaborating with peers at the Space Generation Advisory Council’s Fusion Forum, which brings together 50 of the next generation of space-sector leaders to exchange views on hot space topics through interactive panels.

Activities like Fusion Forum and the SEDS leadership conference have made a deep impact on their young participants’ lives, and this impact lasts far after the conference activities have ended. They allow young people to “sit at the table,” as Sandberg would say, and empower them to share their ideas as well as hearing and reflecting on those of their peers.

Space industry leaders have recognized a need to cultivate young talent, and they have taken important first steps toward doing this effectively. But to really empower and inspire the young generation of space leaders, the industry needs to encourage young people to actively participate and provide resources for them to do so. It needs to work with organizations that specialize in peer mentorship like SEDS and the Space Generation Advisory Council to create meaningful activities for young people. Rather than creating a token “young person” panel and expounding their promise and accomplishments, industry leaders should invite them to sit at the table, to participate in all discussions. Then we will see young people and the space industry thrive.

Hannah Kerner is chairwoman of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation. Her email is [email protected]