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Interplanetary Initiative wins ISS National Laboratory grant

Grant to help middle school teachers incorporate microgravity concepts into classrooms


The International Space Station in space.

Courtesy image

February 28, 2024

By Kelli Fitzpatrick

The Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University has won a grant from the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory to develop a new professional development program to help middle school teachers incorporate microgravity concepts into their classrooms. 

one-color version of the ISS National Laboratory logo

Specifically, the grant will fund a series of three in-person professional development workshops hosted at ASU, the University of Colorado Boulder and Stanford University, engaging a total of 45 middle school teachers who are interested in incorporating space research into their classrooms. There will be no cost for accepted teachers to participate, and professional development hours and a stipend will be provided. 

A primary motivation for this grant project is to bring hands-on, experiential learning to middle school students at a pivotal point in their academic journeys, when being engaged by the possibilities of space research could inspire them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as the space industry. It will also expand the reach of existing free microgravity curricula to new populations, giving students access to novel and fulfilling STEM educational experiences. 

Katherine McConachie, senior director of learning at the Interplanetary Initiative and the grant's principal investigator, stated, “This project will bring interactive and engaging learning experiences on microgravity-enabled science to thousands of middle school students in Arizona, California and Colorado. We’re excited to work alongside teachers to inspire young people to pursue STEM learning and space careers.” 

The in-person workshops will consist of a variety of activities and sessions, including an introduction to microgravity-enabled research, like that which takes place aboard the ISS, as well as tours of university lab facilities.

A core component of the workshops will be training on Orion’s Quest, a free, online, standards-aligned education platform that allows for experiential learning through live or virtual “missions.” Activities allow students to analyze real data from the ISS and submit their findings to scientists, engaging the students in real-world empirical inquiry and knowledge-making.

'A win-win' for students and researchers

“Orion’s Quest student missions can provide a true win-win advantage for students and researchers,” said Tom Drummond, chief operating officer at Orion’s Quest. “Students can access and take an active role in reviewing and analyzing actual photos or videos from experiments in space, and the principal investigator of the research may receive value-added data from students across the country.”

The specific activities covered in the workshops will connect to ISS research conducted by faculty at each collaborating university, including the activity on “managing microbes in space” created with ASU’s Cheryl Nickerson.

Drummond explained that this activity “introduces students to the concepts of microgravity, model organisms, bacterial virulence, the use of additives (phosphate) to influence bacteria, and the benefits of this research for both Earth and space-based applications. Dr. Nickerson’s research aimed to provide data that would lead to increased astronaut health as well as provide Earth applications such as better vaccines against bacterial pneumonia and prevention of foodborne illnesses.”

Also included in the workshops will be an overview of Orbital Reef, a planned commercial low-Earth orbital space station designed by Blue Origin and Sierra Space.

ASU is the organizing member of the Orbital Reef University Advisory Council, made up of 15 universities that are leveraging their collective expertise and resources to envision the next generation of research in low-Earth orbit. By connecting these educational efforts to Orbital Reef, this project ensures continuity of outreach programs between the ISS and future commercial stations, increasing access to space-based research opportunities for educators and students, particularly for underserved groups.

The grant project aims to provide practical and enriching hands-on professional development to teachers. The intended outcomes of the workshops for teachers are to excite them about the possibilities of microgravity-enabled science, equip them to utilize Orion’s Quest activities in their classrooms and help them better connect with ISS research occurring at their local universities.

There will be opportunities for networking and asking questions, as well as a chance for teachers to earn an additional stipend by implementing a microgravity learning activity in their classrooms. The project will also create a digital facilitator’s guide as a tool for other universities to implement similar programs, ensuring this project is replicable and scalable.

The grant sponsor, the ISS National Laboratory, is managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space under cooperative agreement with NASA, and provides a “unique space-based research platform” that is available to U.S. researchers from corporate, academic and governmental agencies, as well as others who are “interested in leveraging the space environment to solve complex problems on Earth.” The ISS National Lab’s calls for grant proposals typically seek projects that expand education programs, workforce development programs or public-private partnerships that utilize the ISS and its research.

Teachers interested in applying for the workshop can contact the Interplanetary Initiative. Applications will open this spring.

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