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Photo Essay

Virtual missions to space enhance STEM studies

Virtual High School offers Middle School Space Station Academy
  • In golden light: A photo of Earth, left, taken from the Cupola module on the International Space Station. Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Long Island are perfectly clear from the space station.
  • A CASIS employee shows students what the inside of the International Space Station looks like.
  • The robotic arm Canadarm2 is at work.

Students can step inside an astronaut’s’ boots to experience life and research onboard the international space station with online science courses offered by the Virtual High School, which supplements public and private school instruction.

One course, the Middle School Space Station Academy, teaches students about Earth science, life science, physical science and engineering. They learn about the space station’s design and missions by watching videos of the astronauts at work and by conducting their own science experiments.

For example, students examine how exercise can reduce the impact that prolonged weightlessness has on bone density, says Kim Spangenberg, the school’s associate dean of STEM. To get an astronaut’s’ perspective, they can review photographs of Earth taken from the space station over the past 10 years as part of the Windows on Earth educational project.

Another virtual exercise has students using thermodynamic and electromagnetic radiation concepts to learn how solar panels can be fixed on the space station. Near the end of the course, they learn about the challenges of reentry into Earth’s atmosphere and the skills needed to land safely.

The Middle School Space Station Academy was developed by VHS in collaboration with a team of agencies, including the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the Association of Space Explorers, a professional organization of over 400 astronauts from 37 nations. Nearly 80 students in five states have taken the course.

The school's less formal, four-week curriculum—Mission to the International Space Station—sends elementary, middle and high school students on a simulated journey to learn how the space station operates, what life on board is like for astronauts, and how the Earth is studied from orbit.

More than 400 students from 11 states have participated in both programs since summer 2014 with more than 95 percent completing the courses.

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