Bringing Everyone In
Expanding what it means to be a STEM professional.
Tania Anderson’s calm, confident demeanor and warm smile make it very easy to connect. As soon as you begin speaking to her, it becomes clear that she has a wealth of knowledge—and she wants to ensure you, along with school-aged children, have access to it and all the opportunities she’s created at the institute. Ms. Anderson founded our Youth for Astronomy and Engineering (YAE) program to offer regular programming to underserved and underrepresented youth throughout Maryland, though children from across the county may also access online portions of YAE events. After joining the institute in 1999, she contributed to the human resources team and the director’s office before developing a strategy that led to the formal roll out and program management of YAE in 2005. She is also a longtime contributor to, and now co-chair of Invision, a committee that identifies issues, and develops and recommends solutions to improve our work environment. Here, she shares why she’s so driven to connect local youth to opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and how this work connects to our new internship program, which she also manages.
You helped the institute found YAE in 2005. Tell us what a regular event is like.
Every event opens with a speaker. They might talk about their career, whether it’s in science, astronomy, engineering—or any other field represented by another staff member who volunteers to talk. That’s followed by a Q&A and a hands-on activity. As we were leading up to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, many talks focused on its upcoming science. There are also talks about the upcoming science of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope and, of course, the active science from the Hubble Space Telescope. The career talks are critical. Kids need to know what they need to do to become scientists, engineers, and other STEM professionals. We try to get a diverse set of speakers when we have career panels so that the kids can see the variety of options. For example, some kids might be into design, but also like science so I tell them how the telescope images are made, which combines art and science. I want them to know they don’t have to stick to a single track. You can combine all the things that you love and find a perfect position. STEM is in everything that we do. I want them to know that they have options. As kids expand what they pursue professionally, we’ll start seeing a more diverse pool of graduates from STEM programs, and that will change the makeup of the workforce 30 years from now.
Is there a longtime YAE attendee who stands out in your memory?
I remember when one young lady who first started attending the YAE events in third or fourth grade. I watched her grow up. When she got into high school, she created a short documentary about Hubble for a statewide contest—and she won. That made me feel good because it showed that she was still connected to what we do at the institute. She also interned with us later in high school. While she was here that summer, she would attend every single talk we hosted. When she joined a YAE event one evening, someone in the audience asked a question and the speaker didn’t know the answer. She raised her hand so fast I thought it was going to fly off her arm! The speaker called on her and she answered it accurately. I was so proud of her in that moment.
Roughly how many attendees has the program served?
I estimate between 10,000 and 12,000 to date. What’s most rewarding is that a good number of our student attendees go into STEM studies when they start undergrad. Even if they don’t choose to go into physics, they choose STEM. That is a major goal of the program. I’m also happy to share that quite a few YAE attendees also go on to apply to internship opportunities we host at the institute.
You recently helped launch the ongoing internships at the institute. What need does this program fulfill?
Our focus is to try to get students in our local community hands-on experience to gain skills they can leverage when they become full-time professionals. Anybody at the institute who is willing to take an intern under their wing may contact me. I work with that staff member to define what the project is and the duration of the position, making sure that we are reaching out to the right academic level. Sometimes they may think they want an undergraduate, but the skill or educational background they need may require a few master’s courses. Alternately, if a high school student has that skill, they, too, would qualify for that internship.
I work with colleagues to make sure that we cover the biggest population we can in our local community. We have connections with a lot of local colleges, including historically black colleges and universities. We work with all of them. We also attend conferences to share internship and job opportunities more broadly. When we assess the applications, we’re not necessarily looking for experience on their resumes. Instead, we’re looking to see if they have completed the core studies the position requires and if they are doing well. Their mentor also helps them build professional skills once they’ve started the internship.
The word is getting out, because we’re seeing a lot of applicants to these positions. It’s very exciting. Our hope is that these students will continue to have an interest in that specific field in the long term, and consider applying to the institute for a full-time position after they graduate.
How has the institute changed since you joined?
I've been here for over 24 years. It’s been a treat for me to see the organization grow and to see all that we’ve accomplished. When I first started at the institute, Webb was just a thought. It was called NGST, the Next Generation Space Telescope. Seeing it launch and be fully commissioned … wow. You don’t have to be an astronomer to feel the amazement! We’re all part of a bigger mission. And that’s what makes me want to continue to contribute to STScI and the workforce of the future.
Article updated February 2023.