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Inspiring the Next Generation with 'Hands-on' Experience:
International Space Station Provides 'Classroom' for Students Around the World
06.27.07
A student views seeds at the Sally Ride Science Festival at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. Imagine a classroom project to build training hardware for astronauts. Or growing plants on the International Space Station. Or snapping photographs from space.

For more than six years, the space station -- where crews perform experiments 220 miles above Earth -- has become a base for an integral part of school curriculums around the world. Nearly 32 million U.S. and international partner students -- from kindergarten to college -- have had the opportunity to participate in a live downlink from the space station where astronauts answer their questions about living, working and doing scientific research in space.

Image above, at right: A student looks at seeds at the Sally Ride Science Festival at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. Credit: NASA

Nearly a million U.S. students have participated in hands-on or “inquiry based” learning linked to research on the station. Thousands of international students also have participated.

"Educators have found that students are really motivated when they can compare their experiments in the classroom with similar investigations on the space station," said Julie Robinson, International Space Station Program scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Educational activities linked to the space station motivate students to pursue studies in science, engineering, technology and math."

Two alfalfa seeds -- smaller seeds -- and two radish seeds -- larger seeds -- that are part of the classroom kit that will be used by students participating in CSI-01 experiment. One popular project currently operating on the space station -- called the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus Science Insert, or CSI -- uses small growth chambers in an incubator to help students investigate the effects of living in space on small plants and animals. The studies are linked to established ground-based curricula. Students can participate in several different experiments that grow more than their interest in science. The equipment for the experiment was developed by Bioserve Space Technologies in partnership with the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Image at right: This image shows two alfalfa seeds (smaller seeds) and two radish seeds (larger seeds) that are part of the classroom kit that will be used by students participating in CSI-01 experiment. Credit: NASA

Using the Agronauts curriculum developed by North Carolina State University, elementary students can learn about seed germination and how gravity affects plant growth. They grow their own gardens in their classrooms and monitor variations in how the same plants grow in a garden habitat on orbit.

Another CSI experiment monitors small worms -- model organisms used to study physiological processes that also affect humans -- to gain insight about their multi-generational and long-term growth on the station versus in the classroom. Middle school students watched the worms grow through an automatic video downlink. Their investigations were based on a curriculum developed by Orion's Quest.

Samples from the investigations are also of interest to several international teams of scientists who will be examining the space-grown seedlings and worms once they are returned to Earth.

In a CSI experiment planned for the future, students examine crystal growth formation to learn how spaceflight and microgravity, or the weightless environment of space, can help improve protein crystals. Students grow crystals in their classrooms and use the Internet to compare their growth rate to those grown in space.

"These experiments are providing an extraordinary educational experience to thousands of elementary, middle and high school students who otherwise would not have access to science conducted on board the station," said Stefanie Countryman, education program coordinator at the University of Colorado. "Our CSI payload challenges students to think in unique and creative ways. It also is helping to raise a generation of children who understand why the space station and space exploration are invaluable to our nation."

EarthKAM image of Ganges River Delta in Bangladesh and India Another experiment gives students actual control of a camera on the space station. The educational program Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students, or EarthKAM, gives thousands of students each year an unprecedented opportunity to photograph and examine the Earth from the unique perspective of space.

Image at right: EarthKAM image of the Ganges River Delta in Bangladesh and India. Credit: NASA

Using the EarthKAM Web pages, students maneuver a special digital camera mounted in a space station window. Students photograph a wide range of beautiful and fascinating features on the surface of Earth. They study the photos to learn more about the physical features of the Earth's surface such as volcanoes, river deltas and pollution.

"We are giving students the opportunity to not only operate something in space, but also learn about geography in an exciting way," said Sally Ride, EarthKAM's principal investigator and the former NASA astronaut who became the first American woman to reach space. "It's amazing to see just how many schools are benefiting from this experiment and gaining a new understanding of the world we live in."

To date, more than 82,000 students in 1,260 middle schools in the United States and 15 other countries have participated in the EarthKAM project. A total of 150 college students from the University of California at San Diego also have operated the experiment. Both high school and college students have received more than 20,000 photographs from the station since EarthKAM began in March 2001 on Expedition 2 -- the second research mission to the station.

Education Payload Operations is another successful education program in which students learn how simple objects like toys and tools behave differently in space. Station crew members demonstrate the physical properties of those objects such as force, motion and energy that may be obscured by gravity on Earth. The demonstrations -- developed by the Teaching from Space Office at the Johnson Center -- have been performed by crew members on the station since Expedition 4 began in December 2001.

"From astronauts showing how simple and familiar phenomena such as water droplets behave on the station, to inviting students of all ages to pose questions to station crews during live television events, these diverse activities connect with students and bring the station experience into their lives," said Jon Neubauer, education specialist in the Teaching from Space Office at the Johnson Center. All Education Payload Operations activities are videotaped and are being incorporated into a variety of NASA education resources. More than 500 videos have been distributed by NASA's Central Operation of Resources for Educators, or CORE, to science teachers and about 1,500 teachers each year are trained to use the materials in their classrooms.

Other specific video demonstrations have been developed by NASA to meet the educational needs of science museums for use in lessons and exhibits as part of the Museum Aerospace Education Alliance. Space station crew members on three separate expeditions used items such as paper airplanes and musical instruments to show how these ordinary objects perform in microgravity.

View of surface tension demonstration using water that is being held in place by a metal loop. During Expedition 6 -- the sixth research mission to the station from October 2002 to April 2003 -- astronaut Don Pettit enjoyed performing a number of experiments on the station that became known as "Saturday Morning Science." Building from his own curiosity about the physical effects of the microgravity environment, Pettit showed a variety of fluid physics principles by experimenting with thin films and fluid flows and growing salt crystals out of a suspended thin film solution. "Saturday Morning Science" experiments were made into NASA videos that are used by high school and college students as a guide to performing similar experiments in their classes.

Image at right: During Expedition Six aboard the International Space Station, Expedition Six NASA ISS science officer Donald R. Pettit demonstrated surface tension using water held in place by a metal loop. Credit: NASA

While some students may not be participating in on-orbit activities, they are certainly doing their part on the ground. Students at 22 high schools across the country are building hardware for space station mockups used by NASA astronauts and ground personnel to train for space missions. Students who participate in the High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware, or HUNCH program, learn how to engineer, draft and manufacture equipment similar to that used on the space station.

At NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and at the Johnson Center, students meet with NASA engineers, analyze current training hardware and then build it. Twenty cargo lockers like those used for storage on the space station have been built by the students. They also built a prototype valve to control water flow and cooling to station racks to train crews how to handle any leaks on the station.

Students participating in these NASA educational activities also have built power supplies for utility panels to power laptops and payloads. All of these student-built products are already being used in training sessions at the Marshall Center and the Johnson Center.

"These students are NASA's future," said Robinson. "Whether it's a future scientist seeking a break-through in medicine, the future astronaut flying to the moon or Mars, or the future engineer building spacecraft to take us there, it will be a proud moment to hear them say their participation in our space station educational activities led them to those careers."

For more information on educational activities on the International Space Station:

+ Education at NASA
+ Multi-Agency Task Force Report
+ NASA/TP-2006-213721 - Inspiring the Next Generation: Student Experiments and Educational Activities on the ISS, 2000 - 2006 (PDF, 3.5 MB)