HOUSTON - 04 November 11
USRP: Technical Reports and NASA Firsts
By: Heather L. Ogletree
More and more, the ability to effectively communicate is being recognized as an important job qualification, even within technical professions. Bryan Dansberry, NASA Lead for the Undergraduate Student Research Project (USRP), commented, “Aerospace employers have long complained that graduating students do not enter the workforce with good technical writing skills.” Therefore, when the Universities Space Research Association joined Johnson Space Center (JSC) in a cooperative agreement in 2006, it was decided that interns would be required to write a ten page technical report as part of their internship requirements, which made USRP the one of the first NASA undergraduate internship programs that promoted technical writing as part of the curriculum. “This requirement stems from a desire to strengthen that capability in USRP alumni,” said Dansberry.
When Dansberry took over as NASA Lead in 2007, he reviewed the technical reports requirement and noticed that many of the student papers were not in acceptable format. He noted, “Many mentors and students complained that the requirement was just busywork and could not see the value of completing the assignment.” This led to the decision to require students to write their papers in American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) format, which is recognized by the NASA and aerospace communities as the leading publisher in aerospace. This along with Dansberry’s vision of publishing student reports, made the requirement “more realistic” and “meaningful.”
As an additional measure, Dansberry wrote a technical report in AIAA format to explain requirement and what was expected of USRP interns, which served as an example of what the report should look like for students who do not have experience with the format. Moreover, USRP began hosting Elluminate webinars to explain the requirement and answer student questions. To date, over 450 students have participated in Technical Reports Requirements Elluminate Sessions and over 1300 students have written a technical report through USRP.
Dansberry’s vision to publish intern technical reports came to life in October 2010, when USRP launched its Technical Papers website, making USRP not only one of the first programs to require reports, but also the first NASA Education program to publish its students’ full technical reports online. However, before this could happen, I was tasked with researching the process for export control. Many USRP interns work on projects where intellectual property or research is involved, and, therefore, their technical report cannot be publically published in part or even at all until NASA claims the patent or copyright on the completed product. To ensure that no sensitive, proprietary or classified information is released, NASA requires all authors who want to publish their work go through export control.
This process has four levels of approval. First, the author makes a recommendation on the distribution, classification and availability of the report. This is followed by a review of the report by the organizations technical monitor, the center’s export control monitor and the program manager who gives the final decision on distribution limitations. USRP students face the additional requirement of mentor approval before going through export control. Sometimes, student’s research becomes part of a paper that the mentor publishes later on, and the mentor cites the intern as a co-author.
“The idea for the technical papers database on the USRP website came about as a means to add value to the technical reporting requirement,” Dansberry remarked. “The opportunity to become a published author prior to graduation is both exciting to students and a very valuable addition to their resume. The increased effort resulting from this perceived value leads, obviously, higher quality papers. But more importantly, it increases the skill development of the students. Students simply learn more as a result of putting more effort into the writing.” Students also learn more about NASA’s culture by understanding the export control process.
It has now been one year since USRP launched the Technical Papers website, and each semester the database of reports grows, serving as a testament to USRP Intern’s accomplishments and body of work while functioning as resource for current interns in the midst of writing their reports. To date, USRP has published 129 intern reports from 9 different NASA Centers.