Liberal Education

How to Get to NASA and Other HIP Advice: Librarian Caroline Coward Talks about What the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Looks for When Hiring

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, isn’t looking to hire “übernerds but global citizens and lifelong learners—full-fledged people,” says Caroline Coward, the Library Group supervisor for JPL’s Enterprise and Information Systems Engineering Section. JPL wants sculptors and filmmakers as well as scientists, Coward explains, and employees need to be able to apply knowledge across the organization and demonstrate a variety of problem-solving abilities. Liberal Education’s Christen Aragoni spoke with Coward about her own career journey, the importance of high-impact practices, and what employers—specifically NASA and JPL—look at when hiring interns and recent graduates. Hint: it’s not SAT scores.

Let’s start with how you ended up at JPL.

Most of my career in librarianship has been spent in higher education, and I’ve also worked for a couple of public libraries. Before coming to JPL, I was the information literacy coordinator for California State University–Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). I had started to feel like I should get into library administration, and I began looking for opportunities at academic and public libraries. The position at JPL just kind of came up, but when I read the job description, I thought, “I’m not what they’re looking for”—I had no federal experience, no specific science experience, nothing in my background that said, “Oh, yes, you should be working for NASA.”

I sat on it for about ten days. But the role had everything I was seeking: overseeing the library’s daily operations and its staff and setting policy to move the library forward and make sure it has the collections the people at JPL need. A couple of weeks after I applied, I got an email inviting me for an interview. My jaw hit the floor. I called to make sure that they hadn’t emailed the wrong person, and they said, “You have a combination of skills and abilities that we’re very interested in.” The interview was lovely, but I left convinced that they were really looking for someone with all kinds of space science experience. When I was invited back for a second interview, I was mystified. But the boss of the person who eventually became my boss had seen that I had been deeply involved with high-impact practices (HIPs) at CSUDH, and he was very interested in how HIPs were assisting underrepresented students. We had a good conversation about HIPs and curriculum development. Again, I left thinking, “Very nice, now, back to looking for another job.”

No one was more surprised than I was when they offered me the position. That was about two and a half years ago. I have since learned why they wanted me. They’d had a supervisor in place for several years who on paper had all the credentials—he’d worked for a national lab, he’d worked in science, he had a background in technology and engineering. But he was retiring, and they wanted someone who could do communication, outreach, and marketing and really connect with library users and find out what they needed. That evidently was me, because I’d done a lot of that both in higher education and at public libraries.

Most people might not realize that JPL has a library. What does the library do for JPL?

All ten NASA centers have libraries with healthy collections. They do reference and research help, collection development, and interlibrary loans. At JPL, we put on talks and lectures and also have a maker space, with two 3D printers. We have a couple of Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality visors that we circulate just like books. In addition to these more traditional library services, we have huge repositories of technical reports, papers, plans, drawings, special publications, and other internal NASA information that people use to complete assignments like flight projects.

There’s a third aspect to the JPL library, which I see as the future of librarianship, especially academic librarianship. We help organize institutional information, which is often in data repositories that are walled off from each other. The FAIR data principles are Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reusability: What are your search functions? Are you able to find what you’re looking for and then access and use it once you find it? Are people across the organization able to use that piece of information, or is it siloed and locked down? Are you able to reuse that information over time and ensure it is preserved?

I’m the chair of the JPL Ontology Working Group, which looks for not just technological solutions but also more concrete solutions for sharing information. I call this twenty-first-century information science. It’s an untapped area, and JPL is actually quite unique in doing this work. I see the JPL library as a model for higher education, because most universities have stores of data that either only a few people can get to or only a few people know about. There’s a solution: put your librarians to work organizing the institution’s information, and make sure it adheres to FAIR data principles, so you can save a ton of time and money finding the data you need in order to use it. One thing about classic data science is that it’s mostly populated by computer scientists, who are all about clean code. You absolutely need that, but what’s often missing is a focus on the user—on who is going to be using the code or information, adapting it, folding it into their own project. This is the public service and customer service aspect in which librarians are heavily trained.

How did your liberal education help you land your first library job?

My bachelor’s degree is in music performance from California State University–Long Beach. When I graduated, I quickly realized that I was not going to be the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s next cellist—I’ll leave that to the people who practice eight hours a day. And I needed more stability than freelance music. I was working for a music store and not having a good time in retail. On my commute, I would drive by the local public library branch. Now, as a music major, I’d spent most of my undergraduate years in a soundproof practice room, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I went to the library maybe twice. So, I was looking at this little public library, thinking, “I wonder what goes on in there. People do work there and get paid.” I walked in and said I wanted to apply for a job.

They gave me a list of the ten most frequently asked questions at the reference desk and instructed me to write down not the answer to the question but where I would find the answer. I am blessed with a near-photographic memory, and so, I remembered the names of most of my textbooks from my general education courses, which I really loved. In answer to some of the questions, I wrote down the name of my art history textbook, my physical sciences textbook, and my astronomy textbook. Then I went back to my job at the music store, thinking that was that. But I did really well on the quiz, and they wanted to interview me the next time they had an opening—which they did, about two months later, for a reference assistant. They hired me, and I worked at the reference desk helping people find information. My first library patron was a six-year-old looking to identify a leaf off a tree. I had a blast.

I had a real affinity for the job, and I became quite good at it, and so I did that for five years. Then I went and earned my master of library and information science degree through San Jose State University’s satellite program at California State University–Fullerton. If it hadn’t been for my general education classes and that quiz, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and I would probably be working someplace very different.

Some people might think, “Well, you didn’t need a STEM background to work at JPL because you work in the library, so that’s different.” But what about other roles at JPL and NASA—do you have to have a STEM background? Who is JPL looking for?

The majority of the people at JPL and NASA are working in science fields, but a good percentage are folks working in business, contracts, facilities, transportation, logistics, photography—we have a team of artists who build interactive and science-based art installations with LED lights. They also design posters and create murals that have scientific information embedded in them. We have screenwriters and filmmakers, too. We just won our second Emmy for a documentary we did here at JPL. There’s a place for everyone at NASA, regardless of your training. We’re also very proud of our diversity in gender, language, religion, and culture. It is recognized across the enterprise that diversity of thought always produces a better product.

To get your foot in the door here at JPL or across NASA, you have to be the best at what you do. Having a little bit of experience under your belt really helps. If you’re right out of school, we look for people who have had interesting internships. When we do our summer intern program, we get thousands of applications for about eight hundred positions. In order to put yourself at the head of that line, you have to have something that really stands out. It’s not enough to have your classic, weighted 4.0 GPA and a long list of Ivy League internships. You have to stand out, and there are a couple of things that we look for, such as demonstrated learning. Have you built something? Did you rewire your parents’ house, so that it lights up in purple every time they open the door? Did you build a sculpture out of hula hoops and make it move by itself? Did you do something really cool that you can show us, some kind of hands-on learning?

We’re also looking for the ability to problem solve in a variety of ways. We’re all familiar with the classic list of soft skills, but we’re looking for even softer skills, things like grit, tenacity, curiosity, and creativity. One of my favorites is enterprise-wide thinking, which is getting the blinders off and not just thinking about your team deliverable or the work product but how what you’re doing applies to the entire organization. If we recognize tenacity and creativity in someone who has built that hula hoop sculpture that moves on its own, we’re going to say, “Hey, we can leverage that to send our next robot to Mars.” Whatever it is that you do, whatever your superpower is, really, we want to know about that. So, yeah, you need the grades, you need the coursework, you need the letters of recommendation, but then there’s your superpower.

How do educators foster things like tenacity and curiosity?

HIPs go a long way for not only fostering those qualities but also recognizing and discovering them in students. This demands creativity from classroom faculty, even if they’re already doing HIPs such as learning cohorts, study abroad, or undergraduate research. Creativity in developing and applying HIPs will go a long way in giving students a leg up and a spot at the head of the line to come to a place like NASA.

Here’s an example of the creativity I mean: a university wanted to offer study abroad as a HIP, but it had a large number of Dreamer and DACA students who couldn’t leave the country. How do you achieve a similar impact as studying abroad? What is the secret sauce behind studying abroad? Is it the fact that you go to another country? No, it’s that you get an immersive cultural experience that’s very different from your own. The university flew their students to the Southwest United States and had them live on a reservation with the local indigenous population. The students spent a couple of weeks doing service-learning and cultural projects. This is the next generation of HIPs. We need to put our heads together to figure out how we can replicate the secret sauce behind a particular HIP, given our restrictions and our parameters.

Can you talk about the importance of low-tech abilities versus high-tech ones?

A lot of students are coming out of universities, especially the better-funded universities, with all kinds of technical knowledge. Many are really adept at using the latest and greatest tools. It’s all very impressive, but what if you’re in an environment that doesn’t have that kind of technology or requires something completely different? Interns and new hires can’t be thrown by that. So, another softer skill that I want to mention is adaptability. Often, low tech is the common denominator between two working groups. They might have their own technology that they work with, but if they have to work together on a project, sometimes a whiteboard, or the back of a napkin, or an overhead transparency is what they’re stuck with. You have to be comfortable with that. You have to have really good low-tech skills as well as high-tech skills—we’re looking for both.

Why is college group work problematic, and what can educators do?

In higher education, group work is an assignment with a deliverable at the end. Everybody in the group is in the same class, is usually around the same age, and has about the same level of experience. It’s a homogeneous group, and everybody’s talking the same language and working toward a common goal.

In the workplace, it’s the exact opposite. A working group can involve people from disparate teams. You have to be able to communicate outside of your discipline. You can’t keep talking at the same level—you have to be able to communicate what you’re doing to people who are very, very smart and highly educated but who might not have any idea what you’re talking about.

The range of ages is also a huge factor. You’re often working with colleagues who are younger and older than you are—people who have decades of experience in the organization, people who are right out of college. It’s a heterogeneous environment, and I wish that higher education would clue into this, and really bust up teamwork or group work in their undergraduate courses: bring in a staff member to work with, bring in a graduate student, have a mixed class of freshmen and seniors so that they can learn from one another. Anything that you can do to break free from the classroom will make group work more impactful.

Why is failure so important?

Everybody’s too afraid to fail. Everybody is nervous that they have to get it right the first time. No, you don’t. At NASA, one of our mottos is “Fail fast.” Fail fast, learn from it, and go forward. We throw a lot of darts at a board here at NASA, and maybe one dart hits it. We document it, figure out how to do it better, share results, and try it again. We experiment. I’m a big fan of pilot projects. Take it small, and see what works, what doesn’t work. See if it scales. Fail early, fail fast, so that you’re not failing when you’re on the way to Mars. 

Christen Aragoni is editor of Liberal Education.

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