Stanford’s First Space Policy Course – A Student Led Initiative

Stanford’s First Space Policy Course – A Student Led Initiative

  • CourseAA 47SI: Why Go to Space?
  • Instructors: Rishi Bedi and Thomas Teisberg
  • Faculty Advisor: Mykel Kochenderfer
  • Class Team: David Gerson, Matt Daniels, Marshall Bennett, Elizabeth Hillstrom and Theo Diamandis
  • Audience: Undergraduates and Graduate Students


What opportunities do students who are interested in the non-engineering side of space exploration have at Stanford? Early in their sophomore years, Rishi Bedi and Thomas Teisberg found a common interest when they independently contacted Stanford Student Space Initiative (SSI) alumni to learn more about space policy. They wanted to address this question once they realized how many other current students wanted to learn about the non-technical, policy side of space exploration. Thomas, an electrical engineering major, and Rishi, a computer science major, wanted to tackle space beyond their engineering interests and into the broader space landscape. That’s how the early planning stages for the student-initiated course AA47SI – Why Go to Space? began. 

Creating & Leading a Student-initiated Course

• What resources are important to offer a student-initiated course?  

To lead a student-initiated course, Rishi and Thomas would need a faculty advisor who is appointed in the department that the course would be offered in. The two first approached their SSI advisor, Professor Marco Pavone, for advice. Professor Pavone suggested Aeronautics & Astronautics Professor Mykel Kochenderfer. Professor Kochenderfer shared Thomas and Rishi’s enthusiasm for developing AA47SI: “Going to the moon is definitely on the short list of the coolest things that humans have done. The history, the policy, and the technology are just utterly fascinating.”  As a member of the 2015-16 cohort of the Course Design Institute, Professor Kochenderfer also provided real-time support in how to engage the class and encourage all students to participate in class discussions. Thus, through the Aeronautics & Astronautics department, Thomas and Rishi created the course they would have wanted to take as students; referencing their own experiences as students and trying teaching techniques they saw as effective. Their goal was that students from a variety of backgrounds and experiences would “see what opportunities exist on the non-technical side of space and discover what they might want to study further.”

The pair drew on the expertise and support from their friends and the broader SSI community: founders of SSI David Gerson and Matt Daniels suggested readings and provided connections to guest speakers. With a background in international relations and space policy, Marshall Bennett, a recent Stanford alumnus, was key in producing the initial syllabus with SSI, developing the approach and weekly themes, and sorting through readings that would be most the useful. Elizabeth Hillstrom and Theo Diamandis and the entire SSI Operations Team were supportive in connecting with and accommodating guest speakers for the course. 

• How did the team choreograph the class sessions?

In AA47SI, Rishi and Thomas examined the history of space exploration and security through the lens of early science fiction writers, development of U.S. space policies and laws, Apollo era and shuttle missions, other nations’ space agencies, and concluding with speculations about what space exploration will look like in 100 years. Each class meeting was different, and the students would participate in brainstorming and discussion activities. In one class, for example, students identified as many space-related companies that they could think of. Then through discussion, the companies were categorized based on industry and market. This exercise helped students understand the various companies that have invested in space-based projects across different industries, such as energy and spacecraft. 

However, not all classes adhered to the same approach. In general, Rishi and Thomas used a storytelling, rather than lecturing approach and “worked with…guest speakers to help them situate their material in the context of the class.” Ronjon Nag, a Stanford Distinguished Career Institute (DCI) Fellow and student of the course, highlights, “[AA47SI] was one of my favorite classes. Its organization and content was as good as any others I took at Stanford - I was surprised that this course was taught by undergraduates.”

• What learning opportunities were there in AA47SI?

Thomas and Rishi faced many of the same challenges that faculty teaching courses face: figuring out where to start and how to capture student curiosity. In spite of these challenges, they found the course was an amazing learning experience. Their learning opportunities included: research they did to prepare lectures, meetings with guest speakers, and from their students in the class during discussions. Professor Kochenderfer learned from Rishi and Thomas too: “they were able to connect with the students in a way that I found inspiring.” 

• How might interested undergraduates lead their own student-initiated course?

Rishi and Thomas suggest that students start planning early, and to do so by asking people what to focus on and how to structure the classes. Students interested in leading a student-initiated course might also consider looking at the curriculum to fill gaps that may exist in the current course offerings. It took Thomas and Rishi approximately one year from talking about the idea to stepping into the classroom to teach the class; so budgeting for time is also crucial.

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