Policy class travels to capital for NASA visit

From March 29 to 30, students in professor Robert Braun’s Science and Technology Policy class went off Tech’s campus for two days when they traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress, White House administration and NASA officials. This semester, the class of about 20 has been studying NASA and the policy it is involved with on Capitol Hill.

Braun, a professor in the School of Aerospace Engineering at Tech, returned to campus in Oct. 2011 after taking a position for two years as NASA’s Chief Technologist, the first one in over a decade. During this time, Braun was charge of long-term, visionary plans for space exploration such as plans for Mars exploration, going back to the moon and looking for planets around other stars. He also worked with Congress, the administration and the White House to advocate for funding in the  budget, and talking to those on Capitol Hill about the importance of investing in advanced technology.

Braun hoped to show that the topics his students discussed in class had real-world consequences for the space agency. Although he has hosted guest lecturers throughout the semester, this was the class’s first trip.

“Like all classes, [the topic] seems a little make-believe until you actually live it. And I actually lived it for two years, so taking the students out of campus and bringing them up to D.C … so they could live it for two days… made it more real for them,” Braun said.

With his contacts in D.C., Braun reached out to former colleagues to set up meetings with various officials such as Rep. Chakah Fattah of Pennsylvania, and the Chiefs of Staff for both Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. At NASA Headquarters, students were able to talk with the Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, the Head of the Office of Communications and the Chief Financial Officer. Other speakers included Robert Knotts, Tech’s Director of Federal Relations, and Ed Federman, the senior professional staff member in the House on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Knotts, who lobbies for the Institute and assists Tech experts who travel to the Capital to testify in front of Congress, was happy with Braun’s efforts.

“I commend Dr. Braun for both creating his Honors class on Aerospace Science and Technology Policy and for bringing the class to D.C. for two days of meetings with senior policy makers.  As his class saw firsthand, Tech students are uniquely prepared to use their technical expertise to shape federal policies of importance to our nation’s competitiveness,” Knotts said.

Braun believes people like those who graduate from Tech have an important place in the nation’s capital.

“When you’re in Washington, you hear all kinds of people talking about the economy and the job situation…and they almost always go to a solution that involved more scientists, engineers, technologists…and you grow those people at our nation’s universities. If universities aren’t involved with these agencies…then there’s not a pipeline of new talent,”  Braun said.

Students listened as speakers discussed current issues and were encouraged to ask questions.

Some took the speakers as confirmation that engineers could have impact at a high level.

“Listening to them speak so enthusiastically about what their job entails on a day to day basis reaffirmed for me that my chosen field in science and technology is where I need to be.  I already had a strong desire to be in an engineering field my entire life, but our talks with NASA guest speakers encouraged me to stick with my chosen profession,” said Weston Jefferson, a second-year AE major.

Others took the chance to get firsthand knowledge of NASA.

“From this class and this trip to Washington, I have been able to learn and experience so much more about NASA’s budget and policy than many have had the opportunity to do,” said Anna Thomas, a fourth-year ChBE major.

Trips like these are rare as they are often expensive and difficult to put together. This trip was funded by the School of Aerospace Engineering and the Honors Program.