Commentary | An Education Model for the Future


The International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program this year runs from June 9 to Aug. 8 in Montreal. Having been an ISU faculty member for over 20 years, as well as a faculty member at private, public and military education institutions for even longer, it is gratifying and encouraging to be associated with an institution that understands the basics for educating for tomorrow, with a multidisciplinary, international, intercultural approach.

The Space Studies Program is an intensive nine-week program designed to bring space professionals together to break down national and disciplinary stovepipes that often handicap productive work in the space field.

ISU became an early adapter in educational approaches because space is inherently a multidisciplinary, international, intercultural environment. Even narrowly focused robotic missions require scientists, engineers, business managers, and policy and legal experts to work together. Human spaceflight extends the required specialists to include medical personnel as well as human factors. Space, as a field of human interest, involves artists, writers and futurists as well. Therefore, it is critical that all of these individuals have a basic understanding of the language they are speaking and the culture they are working within, as they will not each be working in a vacuum.

The importance and difficulty of different disciplines being able to communicate with each other can be easily underestimated. Weight equals money, and cost will often determine the life or death of a space mission. Scientists are driven to maximize every opportunity to gather as much data as possible from sensors on board. They will try to utilize as much weight as possible with their scientific equipment. Engineers, on the other hand, want the spacecraft to successfully operate and therefore prioritize operational hardware redundancy and margins. 

Unfortunately, the language of science and the language of engineers are very different, making the communication and differentiation of necessities, priorities and risks, often involving where their limited funding will be spent, challenging. 

As a graduate-level program, the ISU summer session begins by taking a diverse group of specialists and then levels the playing field by familiarizing everyone with the basics and lexicon of the other disciplines so that they can talk to one another. A policy person will not leave ISU able to build a rocket, but he or she will understand the basic language of rocket builders. An astrophysicist will not leave ISU a lawyer, but will understand the legal limitations of space salvage. An engineer will not leave as a doctor but will understand the special parameters related to human spaceflight.

The international aspect comes into play early as well. Research has repeatedly shown that students learn most from people who are different than they are, rather than those who are simply reinforcing preconceived views. Those who teach at ISU are a carefully selected group of academics and practitioners, each group respecting the strengths of the other, from spacefaring countries all over the world. For Asian students, the expectation of student participation will be different from their norm, and sometimes quite difficult initially. Western students initially find the consensus decision-making favored by their Asian counterparts to be extremely frustrating. All of the students benefit from the variety of faculty styles, as well as stylistic differences often culturally based.

Then, once they are all able to communicate with one another and have grasped the fundamental language of all the disciplines, students are put to work on a group project. Students, especially adult learners, learn best by doing, rather than by just having people lecture to them, regardless of how knowledgeable and dazzling a lecturer is. Sooner or later, to get the material to sink in, students need to apply it. Here, they must communicate not only using their new multidisciplinary lexicon, but with international colleagues who often have very different work habits and styles. The team projects are effectively real-world exercises where the students have insufficient time and insufficient resources to develop a perfect solution.

The really heartening part of the ISU Space Studies Program experience, however, is that every summer the students do a really remarkable job with their group projects. They overcome communication, cultural and “time” obstacles to produce a product all are proud of, and that is useful to the space community. And as a byproduct of having to rely on one another to produce a product, they form professional networks that last a lifetime.

In a globalized world, one is hard pressed to think of many educational areas where the ISU Space Studies Program model does not apply. From environmental studies to international relations to health care to business, multidisciplinary studies are required to transform specialists into also being competent generalists who can communicate with and understand one another’s perspectives, and then give them practical experience in doing so.

Yet far too many academic institutions still educate students in stovepipes, and with too much emphasis on theory rather than practical application. 

“New space” ventures, such as commercial launches and space tourism, are seeking individuals who can think broadly and work collaboratively. This is clearly the way of the future, in space and other areas as well. Space travel, robotic or human, has always carried with it a connotation of the future. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that space education is ahead of many of its terrestrial counterpart fields. 

The International Space University is a relatively new institution. Perhaps that allowed it an advantage in not having to break down stovepipes it never had. Nevertheless, the simplicity and success of the ISU Space Studies Program in particular offers academia a model for the future. 


Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.