Apr 26

STEM that’s really out of this world: NASA’s “Year of Education on Station”

Teachers can often feel as if their heads are spinning. But at least one teacher is truly spinning, or orbiting, Earth right now. His name is Ricky Arnold, and he is the second consecutive teacher-astronaut on the International Space Station during this school year. To celebrate these two intrepid educators — and all educators who work on Earth — NASA has been marking the Year of Education on Station (YES). To tell us more about the YES events and activities, we contacted Becky Kamas, STEM on Station activity manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas:

Q: Tell us about the Year of Education on Station and what prompted it.

A: In March 2017, NASA announced crew members for upcoming International Space Station missions. This announcement included astronauts — and former classroom teachers — Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold. Not only were they going to the space station, but they also would be there during the 2017-18 school year.

My activity, STEM on Station, manages education opportunities and resources related to the International Space Station for the NASA Office of Education. When we saw the crew announcement come across, we knew we had to do something very special.

We wanted to take advantage of the space station’s capability to inspire and engage and reach more students and educators than ever before. We came up with the Year of Education on Station, or YES.

New educational demonstrations, called “STEMonstrations,” are being filmed on orbit and are available online along with corresponding lesson plans. And it isn’t just Joe and Ricky getting in on the fun — all of the USOS crew members (what we call our U.S. astronauts and the astronauts from Canada, Japan and Europe) are participating, too!

You can learn more about STEM on Station and the Year of Education on Station at using #TeacherOnBoard.

Q: What kinds of programs and experiments were conducted for students by astronaut-teacher Joe Acaba, who returned to Earth in February, and now by astronaut-teacher Ricky Arnold, who flew to the space station in March?

A: Joe was very busy during his time aboard the International Space Station. He participated in 16 downlinks, which are 20-minute conversations between students and educators on the ground and astronauts onboard the space station. He talked to students from Texas to California to Tennessee, and even to students in Puerto Rico — a very special event given the recent devastation from Hurricane Maria and Joe’s Puerto Rican heritage.

He also kicked off the Year of Education on Station with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli during a Facebook Live event that reached more than 3 million people!

Joe filmed two STEMonstrations, Exercise and Kinetic and Potential Energy , and worked with pre-service teachers from the University of Houston-Downtown to design simple experiments and demonstrations that would showcase the microgravity environment onboard the space station.

Joe’s work with YES didn’t stop when he returned home. He filmed an interview for the National Science Teachers Association’s national conference where he talked about his mission and how being a teacher helped to prepare him for his career as an astronaut. And soon, he will go out on post-flight appearances where he will visit with students and educators.

As I’m writing this, Ricky has been onboard the space station for about a month. He’s already participated in a few different downlinks, including to pre-service teachers at his alma mater, Frostburg State University in Maryland.

He has recorded a STEMonstration that showcases the surface-tension properties of water in microgravity that will be on our website soon. He also frequently posts on Twitter (@astro_ricky), sharing educational resources and spectacular imagery of the planet. Stay tuned because there is much more to come during his mission.

Of course, these examples are just what astronauts are doing with STEM on Station as a part of YES. There are many other great educational activities that happen onboard the space station.

Students can talk to the International Space Station through Amateur Radio on the ISS (ARISS) or take pictures of the Earth by controlling a camera onboard the space station through EarthKAM . Students and educators can even learn more about sending payloads through space through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space , or CASIS, which manages the National Laboratory onboard the space station.

Q: Did the astronauts plan to carry out some of the lessons that teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe had hoped to offer during her flight on the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded after liftoff in 1986?

A: Completing Christa’s mission to conduct these lessons in space is very important to both Joe and Ricky. Thanks to Challenger Center, Christa’s lessons were archived in hopes that they would one day be performed by a teacher in space. A little over 30 years later, that is coming to fruition.

Ricky will soon begin filming the lessons on liquids, Newton’s Laws, effervescence  and chromatography during his mission. Once all the lessons are filmed, the videos and lessons plans will be available on the Challenger Center’s website . The videos will help inspire the next generation of explorers while paying tribute to Christa’s legacy and the legacy of teachers throughout the world.

Q: How have students participated in the YES programs and experiments?

A: Students have asked more than 750 (and counting!) questions to astronauts during in-flight education downlinks. They have watched STEMonstration videos and conducted their own experiments in the classroom to see how they compare to the microgravity environment.

They have followed along and interacted on social media and have had launch and landing parties. They have come to crew news conferences and special events such as Microsoft YouthSpark Live (a hands-on STEM day focused on possible careers in STEM).

They have taken virtual field trips to the International Space Station through Google Expeditions. And teachers have participated, too! They’ve learned more about the space station through webinars and have used the many new resources available on the STEM on Station website. They’ve even helped us design STEMonstrations.

Q: Is there still time for students to take part?

A: There are definitely still opportunities for students to get involved with YES. And it is important to remember that educational opportunities and resources will be available even after YES is over.

The best place to learn about everything that is going on is to sign up for the NASA EXPRESS message . You’ll get an email every Thursday that outlines new opportunities and resources available across NASA.

Q: Joe Acaba is slated to appear as a keynote speaker during the Tennessee STEM Innovation Summit and STEMxchange 2018, set for May 8-9 in Nashville. Do you know what he will offer in his presentation?

A: That’s very exciting! I don’t know for sure, but I bet he will talk about his mission, the Year of Education on Station, and his time as a teacher. Did you know he was also in the Marine Corps Reserves and was a member of the U.S. Peace Corps? Now he’s been to space three times — the first time was on a space shuttle, and one of his crewmates was Ricky Arnold. They even did a spacewalk together, meaning two teachers were out in space at the same time!

Check out his Not Your Average Joe biography to learn more.

Q: What does NASA have in the pipeline as far as teachers in space and ways to connect students with astronauts on the International Space Station and with other NASA projects?

A: I don’t know of anything specific in the pipeline for teachers in space, but there are so many exciting things going on at NASA — and we love for students and educators to be a part of it!

We are working with Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft that will fly astronauts to the space station as part of the Commercial Crew Program. We are building the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft for our future journey to Mars.

We are building new satellites and are conducting sonic-boom testing that will help us design supersonic commercial aircraft that can break the sound barrier with less disturbance.

This year, we are also celebrating NASA’s 60th birthday, and we are quickly coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. I could go on and on!

As I mentioned above, NASA’s EXPRESS message is the best way to learn about the resources and opportunities related to the space station and our other missions. I read it every week, and I’m always amazed at how many cool opportunities there are for students and educators.

Another great resource is the NASA Education website where you can search educational resources and learn about NASA’s educational activities.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about NASA Education programs?

A: Check out our Internships and Fellowships website . It could help you get started on a career path at NASA! There is something for everyone at NASA. We have scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, doctors, lawyers, graphic artists, social media specialists, accountants, producers, teachers . . . the list goes on and on!