Let’s take a moment’s pause to celebrate a significant milestone: 20 years of continuous human presence in space. The International Space Station (ISS) deserves all the candles on the cake. As do the many people—scientists, engineers, astronauts, mission controllers, welders, security personnel, software developers, and more—all around the world who took the ISS from dream to reality.
Yet there’s another parallel celebration: 20 years of students using the ISS as a research lab in space. Over these years, students have designed, built, launched, and operated their own experiments on the ISS. Students in elementary, middle, and high school use the ISS to program and control robots, select targets for Earth photography and analyze space imagery, operate experiments in chemistry and physics, plant seeds exposed to the space environment, communicate via radio from the ground to space and back, and even conduct cutting-edge genetic research. The first student radio connection with astronauts took place just 10 days after Expedition 1 arrived at the ISS in November 2000, so we also sing happy 20th birthday to the ISS education program.
Think about this for a moment. In the early Apollo program, students marveled as they watched what NASA and the heroic astronauts could do. Although this was deeply inspiring, it was only an observational experience—students saw what other people can do. Then in 1973, along came Skylab, NASA’s first orbital space station, with the first hint of a new future. Some visionaries high up in NASA leadership had the brilliant idea of letting high school students design their own experiments to be done on Skylab. After a national competition, 25 student projects were selected and made history when they were launched to Skylab.
Now fast forward to the present. NASA has expanded its commitment to participatory education, with the ISS as the premiere proving ground. Student participation in research on the ISS has seen 20 years of steady growth, fueled by the passion and persistence of students, educators, scientists, engineers, astronauts, and so many others. Now, student use of the ISS is well ingrained, large scale, and long term—showcasing education as a major success story for the ISS.
The education team at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), manager of the ISS U.S. National Lab, just completed a comprehensive study of the past 20 years of student experiments using the ISS. We collected data from 17 education programs that have enabled student experiments and examined the numbers of students engaged, the nature of experience, the hours of engagement, and ethnicity and gender of the students.
A few findings speak volumes (note that the study looked at U.S. K-12 students—the global reach is even larger):
- 2.6 million students have participated in ISS experiments.
- The education programs achieved good diversity—45% of participants identified as minority and 46% were female.
- Students participating in the programs averaged 10 hours of engagement, with many participating in more than 100 hours.
- Each of the 17 programs developed its own creative pathway to space.
- The programs have remarkable longevity, with almost all of them still operational, including six started more than 10 years ago.
One example that illustrates how these programs achieve both reach (numbers of students) and depth of experience is the EarthKAM program, founded by astronaut Sally Ride, which allows students to select targets for an Earth-facing camera on the ISS. Students monitor the ISS projected orbital path, choose interesting targets, upload the requests, download the photos, and study them to explore Earth system science. EarthKAM uses web-based tools to provide student and teacher training, to run the targeting system, and to archive photos. Over these past 20 years, 660,000 students have participated in EarthKAM. Participating students develop valuable skills such as image analysis, computer operations, data communications, Earth systems thinking, and problem-solving. More deeply, these students are inspired and develop confidence (as well as bragging rights that they have operated an experiment on the ISS). Furthermore, the students now truly see the Earth—their home planet—as something that unites us all.
Now imagine these students, 20 years from now. They will be science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-savvy, confident, ambitious, and in charge of shepherding our planet. We all count on their success.
A big thanks to all who have made this possible. And a big happy 20th anniversary to the ISS!
To learn more, download the report “20 Years of Student Experiments Using the International Space Station.”