Students see world from station crew's point of view

Aug 19, 2014 by Jessica Eagan & Bill Hubscher
A Canadian student from Good Shepherd School in Peace River, Alberta, studies orbital paths of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

NASA is helping students examine their home planet from space without ever leaving the ground, giving them a global perspective by going beyond a map attached to a sphere on a pedestal. The Sally Ride Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students (Sally Ride EarthKAM) program provides a unique educational opportunity for thousands of students multiple times a year.

EarthKAM is an international award-winning education program, allowing to photograph and analyze our planet from the perspective of the International Space Station. Using the Internet, students control a special digital camera on the orbiting laboratory to photograph Earth's coastlines, mountain ranges and other interesting geographical topography. The camera has been aboard the orbiting outpost since the first expedition began in November 2000 and supports approximately four missions annually.

Schools around the world are lining up to participate in the program, which is growing by leaps and bounds. The most recent mission, July 15-19, set summertime records, drawing nearly 36,000 students from 562 schools and summer programs in 34 countries across six continents. Mission organizers believe they may set more participation records when the fall session begins Sept. 29. EarthKAM officials have scheduled two new sessions that are set to begin in the next few months. Interested teachers or students can still sign up at the EarthKAM website.

"This program will help our students become more scientifically literate," said Annie Bourque, a teacher with Barnstead Elementary School in New Hampshire, one of the hundreds of schools that signed up for the recent summer mission. "We want them to understand how new technology can help design tools to improve our ability to measure and observe our world. Real, current photographs of the Earth are powerful learning tools, especially when the students have a hand in creating them."

Damascus as seen from the International Space Station acquired via EarthKAM. Credit: NASA/EarthKAM

"The goal of the investigation is to cast the net wide and encourage all students to take advantage of this great opportunity from the space station," said Cindy Evans, Ph.D., International Space Station associate program scientist for Earth Observations at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It is also a great way for future scientists and engineers to explore the many aspects of spaceflight."

Students learn about Earth science including human geography, geology, ecology and global change, as well as the intricacies of what it takes to live and work in space, such as orbital dynamics, mission operations, scales, precision and accuracy. The outreach program staff is made up of a group of students attending the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), who have been accepted into the EarthKAM Voluntary Internship Program. They operate as flight controllers, giving them training and inspiration for the next generation of space engineers.

In order to participate in the research platform, must first learn about spacecraft orbits and Earth photography. They then request their desired images by tracking the orbit of the space station. This includes checking the weather to make sure the station will have a clear view.

UCSD collects the requests and, with help from representatives at Johnson, uplink them to a computer on the space station. The computer transmits requests to the digital camera, which snaps the images. The photos are downlinked to computers on the ground and, within hours, the EarthKAM team makes the images available on the web for easy access by schools, as well as the public. Students can explore the pictures and make connections with the topics they are studying. They can review a particular lesson not only from textbooks and atlases, but also by using real images of geographical objects and analyzing the data obtained.

EarthKAM is designed to be an inquiry-based investigation for students, but it also provides wide latitude for implementation and focus. The image database with all of the photos taken since 2001 and the educational tools on the website can be tailored for a few afternoon classes or semester-long courses. Teachers and schools—including home schools—can build their lesson plans to support a variety of educational standards that fit within their curricular constraints.

A view of the Sally Ride EarthKAM hardware set-up for use in the Lab Window Observation Research Facility (WORF) aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

"Their enthusiasm to learn more about our home is awe-inspiring," said Pete Hasbrook, associate program scientist in the International Space Station Program Science Office at Johnson. "EarthKAM gives us the opportunity to interact with these students and show them the practical applications of what they are currently studying and how they can build on that knowledge to help NASA investigate our planet."

Students are able to participate actively in spaceflight by taking and seeing images of Earth. They also learn critical scientific fundamentals, obtaining a taste of operational pressures and pursuing their own interests about viewing Earth's surface. This allows students to think globally and, if they are in involved in multiple missions, look for changes.

The image collection and accompanying learning guides and activities are resources that allow EarthKAM to support lessons in Earth science, space science, environmental science, geography, social studies, mathematics, communications and art. Whether students are participating during summer school or planning an EarthKAM mission in the coming school year, they will find the program a source of inspiration as they learn about their world.

Explore further: Space Station top results for biotechnology, health and education announced

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