New Ways to Engage with Space Through the ISS National Lab

Did you know that more than 20 of the experiments currently on the International Space Station (ISS) were designed by kids in middle and high school? Opportunities to design and launch real space-based experiments are among the many offerings of Space Station Explorers, a community of educational partners that uses the ISS as a platform for STEM learning. We recognize that out-of-school-time STEM learning is essential for cultivating a technologically adept workforce for the 21st century. Educators and program providers have voiced a growing need for engaging, hands-on experiences at low or no cost. Our programs and resources meet this need, combining real-world science with the thrill of space!

Space Station Explorers is an initiative of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the U.S. National Lab on the ISS. Using our special access to ISS researchers, crew members, equipment, and data, we create authentic learning experiences for kids in grades K-12. Kids can talk with astronauts, plant seeds that flew in space, participate in Earth observations, control microgravity robots, replicate ISS experiments on the ground, and even design and launch their own experiments to space!

At, program providers in any learning environment can find materials that fit their interests and time constraints—from simple, brief activities to in-depth, long-duration programs. Most programs are free, including the nine examples described here:

  • Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) is a worldwide program that provides hands-on learning about spaceflight, communications technologies, and electronics, culminating in the unforgettable experience of talking with a crew member onboard the ISS! These exciting experiences inspire kids to learn about space exploration and consider careers in STEM fields.
  • Ants in Space is an online lesson plan that guides learners through investigations of ant communication and behavior. Learnerscapture their own ants, build ant habitats with simple materials and compare their observations with video, photos, and data from the original Ants in Space investigation conducted on the ISS in 2014.
  • Genes in Space is a competition that invites learners in grades 7–12 to propose innovative DNA experiments for the ISS. Participants are challenged to design experiments that can solve real-life space exploration problems through DNA analysis. The contest is free and does not require equipment. Winners work with expert mentors to develop their ideas into flight projects. Just last month, the two winning student experiments from the 2017 competition launched to the space station on SpaceX CRS-14and were carried out by ISS crew member Ricky Arnold.
  • Orion’s Quest makes learners into co-investigators onauthenticISS research through hands-on lesson plans called “missions.” In live missions, learners access and analyze near-real-time from the ISSand share their analyses with the scientists! In virtual missions, learners work with archived data from recent experiments on butterflies, plants, microbes, stem cells, and more.
  • Sally Ride EarthKAM is a program that lets learners control an automated camera mounted in an Earth-facing window on the ISS. During a week-long EarthKAM mission, learners choose Earth locations they want to photograph, determine the exact times the ISS will be above those locations and instruct the camera to snap pictures at those times. When they receive their images, learners can explore connections with science, math, geography, and social studies.
  • The Space Station Ambassadors program is a growing community of teachers and others who are passionate about space science and education. Ambassadors can access, develop, and evaluate educational resources; find opportunities for professional development, including support to attend conferences; learn about competitions, grants, and other opportunities; and receive recognition for outreach activities.
  • Story Time From Space offers free videos of astronauts reading children storybooks onboard the ISS. This acclaimed program is now expanding to include Science Time From Space, a set of lesson plans featuring videos of ISS crew members conducting science experiments that kids can replicate at home. Discover how everyday objects can behave in surprising ways in the microgravity environment of the ISS.
  • The Tomatosphere program combines the excitement of space exploration with inquiry-based learning. Educators and program providers register for free to receive tomato seeds that flew on the ISS. Learners plant the seeds to investigate how spaceflight affects the germination and growth of plants. More than 24,000 classrooms in the U.S. and Canada participate in this award-winning, curriculum-driven program each year.
  • Zero Robotics is a programming competition that puts middle and high school students in control of experimental robots onboard the ISS! Teams start by learning to program using free online tools. After several stages of virtual competitions, the top teams upload their code to the ISS for the final tournament. Crew members act as referees while the robots carry out the students' commands. This competition is popular with afterschool programs and clubs.

Space-based research is not just about going out into space. It’s true that some of the scientific activities onboard the ISS seek to solve challenges associated with sending future astronauts to Mars. But most of the experiments done onboard the ISS National Lab focus on applications that benefit people here on Earth! Research on the ISS relates to many STEM fields—from meteorology to microbiology, from medicine to manufacturing—and so do the educational programs crafted around that research. STEM program providers can use Space Station Explorers to infuse any topic with the thrill of spaceflight!

Image courtesy of ARISS and NASA