This piece is part of our ISS360 reflections series highlighting the 2022 International Space Station Research and Development Conference.
Fifty-three years ago, the Apollo 11 launch captivated viewers around the world. Kids were glued to their TV sets as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, picturing themselves in those very same space suits. Today, many of those kids are now scientists and engineers, working to build new technologies that drive innovation. The 11th Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference (ISSRDC) featured a panel that discussed how those that are inspired through science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational experiences go on to inspire others and help foster innovation and technology development.
ISSRDC 2022 focused on a decade of results from research conducted on the International Space Station (ISS), some of which is led by students who design pioneering experiments to help advance science both in space and on the ground. Many of these student-led experiments not only make contributions to real-world science but also result in published academic papers detailing the results.
In addition to serving as a cutting-edge research laboratory in space, the ISS is also an incredible learning platform that can inspire the next generation of scientists, explorers, and engineers. Students in the 1960s and 1970s were inspired by the Apollo moon missions, excited by space exploration and the engineering achievements that made it possible for humans to set foot on the Moon. Today, industry experts and educators are hoping that the ISS will do the same for the next generation.
Alex Dainis, owner of Helicase Media, uses her company to develop digital educational content that gets students interested in science. She has partnered with Genes in Space, a student research program founded by Boeing and miniPCR bio and supported by the ISS National Laboratory and New England BioLabs. Through the annual Genes in Space competition, students in grades 7 through 12 propose DNA-based experiments that leverage the unique environment of the ISS to solve real-world issues.
“I think using something like space, and to open that up to students, is great; there’s already so much wonder and excitement around the idea of exploration,” Dainis said during the panel. “I think that using tools like the ISS and using tools like space education are a great way to open up crucial fields like biology, chemistry, and genetics to students.”
During the panel session, NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps said that in her experience, it’s not just about capturing the interest of students, you also must convince them that STEM is accessible and is the right field for them.
“We need to re-engage students like with the Apollo era, because through space, you can inspire a whole generation,” Epps said. “We need to get that passion back and drive more students into engineering, math, and science so that we can continue to not only further innovation in this country but the world as well.”
Inspiring students to pursue STEM careers is how we will set up a sustained presence on the Moon and eventually on Mars, Epps said. To help make that possible, she wants to use her status as an astronaut to do outreach and to pass on her passion for space and science. In her experience, kids have an innate curiosity, and we need to tap into that if the industry wants to continue to build a thriving economy in low Earth orbit and beyond.
“A lot of us are here because we’re curious—curious about the future of space exploration and what it has in store,” said Maynard Okereke, founder of Hip Hop Science and moderator of the panel. “Curiosity is what drives everything I do, and curiosity is nature’s Ph.D. I’ve been able to accomplish a lot because I’ve been curious, and I want to use that to inspire others.”
As part of its mission, the ISS National Lab works to advance science literacy in the future workforce and shape the next generation of leaders that will play a key role in the success of the future LEO economy. Through Space Station Explorers, the ISS National Lab brings together a community of educators, learners, and organizations that leverage the unique platform of the ISS to provide valuable STEM educational experiences. The ISS National Lab collaborates with many partner organizations on innovative programs and resources for students, educators, and the public, including opportunities to design experiments to launch to space.
To learn more about ISS National Lab educational programs and resources, visit the Space Station Explorers webpage.