Student engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is a crucial goal to better prepare the workforce needed to solve the problems of today and anticipate the challenges of tomorrow. For most students, there is not a more exciting context to explore STEM than the International Space Station (ISS). Space Station Academy, a program consisting of formal and informal curricula that launches students on virtual space missions, uses the ISS as a platform to view Earth from space and to study science and engineering.
The Space Station Academy program, which is part of the Space Station Explorers Consortium, is composed of two thoughtfully developed online programs with support from CASIS and TERC. “Mission to the International Space Station” is an informal learning program that sends students on a virtual mission to the ISS to explore Earth from space. As “cadets,” students learn how the ISS was assembled, how it operates as a multinational program, and how to live, eat, sleep, and work on the international lab as it orbits the Earth. The mission focuses on Earth observation and photography. Cadets experience views from the windows of the ISS, work with the same mapping and targeting software as the astronauts, and explore hundreds of dramatic images. The students also learn about the significance of observing Earth from space and consider the unique perspective it affords.
In the formal semester-long “Science from Space” course, middle school students explore key topics in physical science, life science, Earth science, and engineering—all from their virtual place as cadets on the ISS. As a cohort of cadets, students engage in interesting discussions each week, consider what living and working on the ISS would entail through various activities, and conduct hands-on lab activities and design challenges. Cadets explore the physics and engineering of space travel, consider the effects of microgravity on the body, investigate major geological processes and the impact of human activity on the planet, all while observing Earth from space. In a culminating Science Mission Report, cadets highlight how the important research done on the ISS across all areas of science is critical to our understanding of life back on Earth.
The Virtual High School, with generous support from partners including CASIS, Maine Space Grant Consortium, the Perloff Family Foundation, Viasat, and SpaceCom, offers the Space Station Academy program to schools nationwide, as well as to a variety of informal after-school learning programs including Boys and Girls Clubs, with the critical mission to inspire as many students as possible.