I've been getting a lot of questions lately about the similarities and differences between the International Space University (ISU) and University of North Dakota (UND) space studies masters programs. As someone who has been a student in both universities (ISU SSP '05 and UND MS '10), I am in a good position to compare them. Note that although I was accepted into the ISU masters program, I decided to only attend their Summer Session Program (SSP) instead, so my firsthand ISU perspective is from the SSP rather than the masters. Over a year has passed since I blogged about my decision to join the UND Space Studies distance program. At the halfway point, I can report that I am overall quite happy with it so far. Before getting started, I'd like to thank the folks at UND and ISU who were gracious in providing information for this post.
First, what is space studies? While many universities offer degrees in space-related fields such as aeronautical engineering, planetary science, or space law, ISU and UND are the only schools with interdisciplinary space studies curricula*. Space studies spans many space-related fields including physical sciences, life sciences, engineering, applications, policy, law, business, management, and society/history. Space studies students gain broad backgrounds that allow them to understand the linkages among these fields and to become leaders in the space sector.
Let's see how ISU and UND stack up.
As the table illustrates, ISU and UND Space Studies share many common elements. For instance, they both have curricula that encompass an interdisciplinary set of fields related to space activities. Even though UND has more masters graduates than ISU, ISU has a much larger alumni network thanks largely to the SSP. Both schools attract students from all over the world, but ISU has attracted about four times as many nationalities compared to UND. The average student at ISU is younger than UND, which makes sense given the fact that most UND students are established in their careers already and studying part time. An ISU masters degree takes only one year, while the usual minimum time to complete one at UND is two years, with most distance students taking longer. While, both ISU and UND have a similar complement of full time faculty, ISU has a much larger network of adjunct faculty at its disposal (plus even more guest lecturers). In the past, ISU has lagged behind UND with access to hands-on learning and research facilities, but this is rapidly changing.
Twins Separated at Birth?
Note that both programs were founded in 1987. This is not a coincidence. In the early 1980s, UND asked Dr. Buzz Aldrin to help organize a space education program within their Center (now School) for Aerospace Sciences. He helped structure the early concept for the Space Studies Department and recommended that Dr. David Webb, a member of the Presidential Commission on Space, serve as its first Chair. While Dr. Webb was founding the UND Space Studies program, he also served as the first Chairman of ISU's Board of Trustees. He worked very closely with ISU's founders Dr. Peter Diamandis, Todd Hawley, and Bob Richards in molding ISU, SEDS, and Space Generation into the enduring organizations they are today. ISU also enjoyed support from a number of important personalities including Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill, and Arthur C. Clarke, who served as ISU's first Chancellor. Thus, the early evolution of UND and ISU in the mid- to late-1980s benefited from the guidance of Apollo astronauts and other space notables and cross-pollination due to Dr. Webb's involvement in both organizations. Their paths then diverged as ISU became a more externally-focused organization in order to survive in the competitive world, and UND Space Studies had the luxury of being more internally-focused due to its relative position of security within an established university.
More UND Details
The UND Department of Space Studies (SpSt) lies within the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota. The Odegard School is world-renowned as a top center for aerospace learning with over 500 faculty and staff members teaching in the Departments of Aviation, Atmospheric Sciences, Computer Science, Earth Systems Science & Policy, and Space Studies.
At any given time, UND SpSt sustains about 15 campus and over 100 distance students. It is essentially a distance program that also has an on campus option, although the faculty try very hard to attract and retain more campus students by continually improving the academic and research offerings in the program. By 1998 the UND Space Studies Department had become the largest graduate program in the university (and remains so today) thanks to the popularity of its distance program. Both on- and off-campus students enjoy access to state-of-the-art distance learning tools (course websites, lecture videos, chat rooms, etc.) that make the educational experience of distance students as close to the campus experience as possible. Students even have access to the online astronomical observatory to do research. Historically, the department has had some difficulty retaining its faculty, but this is starting to change since it now has more tenured faculty on staff than ever before.
The UND SpSt Department funds its campus students through tuition waivers and graduate research/teaching assistantships. Although these types of aid from the university are intended for campus students, tuition waivers may also be available for distance students if campus students do not claim all of them. That is how I have funded my UND education so far. Although student loans are, of course, always an option, the other common way students finance their UND Space Studies education is via employer benefits (since some employers will pay to send employees for higher education). The figure below shows how the curriculum works with a combination of required and elective courses for the three different UND MS options. You can read some FAQs about the program or browse its course descriptions on the space.edu website.
More ISU Details
My ISU SSP05 experience at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver opened my eyes to many facets of the space industry for which I had little or no previous exposure, including project management, systems engineering, international/intercultural relations, and space policy/law. I chose the Space Policy and Law Department for my area of specialty since, with my heavy science background, I had no previous experience in that area. Among our activities was a UNCOPUOS simulation dealing with space debris and commercial exploitation of space resources issues, in which I represented France and India’s points of view. I served as policy and law chapter editor for my team project’s report titled Fire Logistics and Management Approach (FLAMA), which dealt with wildfire mitigation using space technologies. I ended up co-presenting my team’s work at the 2006 UNCOPUOS S&T Subcommittee meeting in Vienna.
A number of organizations offer competitive scholarships to ISU students (MSS/MSM, SSP). While some of them do cover full tuition, most are partial tuition scholarships. Making up the shortfall can be a burden to some students, especially considering the travel and living expenses associated with moving to another country. ISU caters really well to younger students who are not yet married or have children. While older students do attend the 10-week SSP, often they do not consider the masters programs due to the complexity of moving away for a year with a family. I know these were big factors for me; I'm glad I did the SSP when I did because it would be nearly impossible now that I have a child.
Both ISU masters degrees (space studies and space management) share a curriculum that is similar to the SSP but with more time to study topics in greater detail. The modular structure of this curriculum is shown in the figure below. The MSS and MSM curricula overlap but have separate focuses on either space science/applications or business/management. Similarly at UND, students can choose their electives to have either a technical or non-technical focus (or both). Usually, students complete all modules sequentially over one year, but one is allowed to space them apart as long as they are completed within a 7-year period. UND has a similar 7-year cap on its program. Students completing the SSP are exempt from having to take Module 1 since the SSP covers the same material.
ISU-UND Curriculum Comparison
The table above shows elements of each school's curriculum that are similar or equivalent. UND's first two required courses are Introduction to Space Studies I and II (501 and 502). These two courses cover the gamut of space studies disciplines and are team taught by all department faculty members. 501 assignments are individual, while 502 focuses on two team projects. Combined, 501 and 502 are quite similar to Module 1 of the ISU MSS/MSM curriculum or the SSP. However, UND has arguably more rigorous academic standards when it comes to assignments, exams, etc.
The bulk of both programs span what ISU calls Modules 2 and 3. While ISU requires a specific specialized curriculum for all students (different for the MSS and MSM), UND allows students great flexibility in choosing which courses to take. This means that a UND student could craft a personalized curriculum similar to ISU's MSS, MSM, or somewhere in between. Both cover a wide range of interdisciplinary space studies topics, but UND tends to compartmentalize these a little more than ISU, meaning ISU is more effective from an interdisciplinary viewpoint, but UND offers greater depth of study within the disciplines.
The ISU team project (Module 4) is roughly equivalent to the UND Capstone experience (595), which is only required for distance rather than campus students. Both involve a substantial team effort over a long time period to produce a lengthy interdisciplinary document on a specific space studies topic. The difference is that ISU focuses on producing highly polished final report and executive summary documents meant for external audiences, while UND's reports are mainly intended for the educational experience itself and aren't circulated much outside the department. Both ISU and UND include a 1-week presentation of the work as the culmination of the team project experience. For UND, that week is the sole residence requirement for the distance masters program.
While UND has no equivalent of ISU's internship, it does require an individual research project (997) similar to ISU's. UND also has the option of a thesis (593+998), which ISU does not. Until recently, only UND campus students could choose to do a thesis, but now motivated distance students also have that option. The distinction between an individual research project and a thesis at UND is that a thesis creates new knowledge in publishable scholarly research while an individual research project may not. Often the required ISU internship can lead to post-graduation employment opportunities for ISU students, and UND does not have such a dimension in its program.
Reuniting ISU and UND
I would really like to see more collaboration between the two schools since they are the only universities currently offering truly interdisciplinary space studies degrees*. ISU is accredited in Europe (but not the US), and UND is accredited in the US (but not Europe). It seems there is an opportunity for a natural synergy between the two universities to provide the same service to their respective constituencies with some kind of reciprocal agreement whereby credit earned at one school would be transferable to the other. For example, maybe the ISU SSP could count as transfer credit for UND's 501 and 502 courses.
ISU already boasts 23 affiliate campuses in 13 countries, so maybe UND could become another one. Perhaps the two programs could agree upon common curricular elements and work towards a more uniform space studies teaching approach to help develop the field further. An ISU-UND faculty and/or student exchange program could help bring in fresh ideas and faces to each program. Maybe over time, the two programs could borrow elements from the other and become more similar with UND primarily serving US-based students and ISU EU-based students.
Who wins the showdown? That's up to you. Both programs offer good but different educational experiences. ISU is more international and professional in scope with excellent networking opportunities, but it can present some geographic and financial barriers to some students. UND is more flexible and academically rigorous but has a relatively weak network. If you live in a country other than the US, I think ISU may be your best bet as long as you can find a source of funding. Otherwise, UND's distance program might be more affordable and beneficial. The new ISU Executive MBA is an exciting development offering people an opportunity to earn a space-focused MBA while continuing to work; however, its 9-week residence requirement is still higher than I would prefer. If I had to break it down to simple pro's and con's of ISU and UND, this is what I would say:
- very modern, dynamic, and relevant to today's space industry
- focus on international relations and professional development
- vibrant alumni network and social scene
- can be a good fast track to "new space" jobs, especially in Europe
- can be very expensive, especially considering living and travel expenses
- no US course credit available
- sometimes not perceived as "real" university
- well-developed distance option makes it accessible to part-time students in any part of the world
- US course credit from a "real" university
- greater opportunities for space science and engineering research
- can be very affordable thanks to assistantships, tuition waivers, or employer educational benefits
- less emphasis on networking and international dimensions of space
- historical difficulty attracting and retaining professors and on campus students
- isolation of distance program means one has to be a very motivated self-starter
But don't take my word for it. Here is what three other ISU-UND alumni have to say:
"UND can give you a space job if you are US citizen ... while ISU is focused way more on international cooperation issues and aspects, eventually providing its best students with access to space-related jobs but mostly in Europe. ISU is a much more entertaining, stimulating, and social experience than the daily life of the introvert [in the] tundra of the [North Dakota] Grand Forks area. ... UND will open you [a] few doors; ISU can open many more, although in a fuzzier fashion." -- Fabio Sau (ISU MSS '04, UND MS '06)
"Although ISU has an established Masters program, its perception is more of a networking, opportunity institution [versus a] hard-core academic standing. ... Also, pride in attending between ISU and UND is different: some liken ISU to Hogwarts - a group of space specialists in a unique "clique" of sorts. ... I don't get the same comradery with UND alumni. This is likely due to the distance students and importance on individual performance [at UND]. I also think both ISU and UND have had issues attracting and retaining the right professors. [UND has] had a huge turnaround that affected the academics taught there. Bottom line, I don't believe ISU and UND provide the same product at all. Their methods are worlds away and subjects can be quite different as well." -- Charity Weeden (UND MS '03, ISU SSP '07)
"The [ISU] summer session is definitely not as academically rigorous as the UND program. But, the intercultural and international aspects of the summer session greatly outweigh anything UND has to offer in those areas. The turnover of staff, especially with UND, does seem to be a concern. Almost all of the professors that I took classes from at UND have moved on to other institutions and programs. ... The UND masters and ISU summer session are complementary programs that really do build on each other's strengths." -- Brian Weeden (UND MS '06, ISU SSP '07)
If the perception is that ISU is more about style than substance, then perhaps the opposite holds true for UND. Like most stereotypes, these are rooted in some basic truths. However, if one looks past the first impressions and actually compares the two programs side-by-side, it becomes clear that they share more similarities than differences. This gives me hope that someday the two estranged siblings can come together as a strong force to bolster the stature of space studies as a field of study. UND could take a lesson from ISU by improving its public face and shedding some of its intellectual vibe. ISU, in turn, should work more within existing educational systems to insure its program is academically compatible and respected.
What do you think? Sound off and let me know!
Update: 23 January 2009
Listen to me talk about ISU and UND on The Space Show.
Update: 4 December 2009
Breaking News: UND now accepts 6 units of transfer credit from the ISU Summer Session. Read all about it.
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