Encyclopedia of Bioastronautics

Living Edition
| Editors: Laurence R. Young, Jeffrey P. Sutton

K-12 Education Opportunities

  • Gregory L. VogtEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-10152-1_35-1


K-12 education programs – Selected NASA and international education programs (curriculum materials and events) suitable for kindergarten students through precollege students in the 12th grade


Within the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (unamended), that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is a mandate that states “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind” (NASA 1958).

It was a powerful mandate that led humans to the Moon, sent robot explorers to the far reaches of the solar system, established a permanent presence in Earth orbit, and impacted virtually all aspects of human life on Earth.

Benefitting all mankind took on many meanings to the early agency including:
  • Expansion of human knowledge of the phenomenon in the atmosphere and space

  • Development of new space vehicles capable of carrying instruments and living organisms through space

  • And preservation of the leadership role in aeronautics and space science and technology

Not stated anywhere within in the space act was the role NASA was to eventually play in field of education, specifically education in grades kindergarten through 12.

With the rapid sequence of success and failure in launching rockets to Earth orbit and deep space and with the perceived competition and lead of the Soviet Union’s' space program, public interest in NASA’s programs was intense. NASA administrators quickly recognized the importance of communicating to the public the details of their programs and accomplishments to maintain their support and to encourage congressional support for appropriations. Consequently, public outreach and education became a significant component of NASA’s mission.

Part of NASA’s efforts in education was self-serving. To conduct its mission, NASA would need a continuous stream of scientifically and technically competent employees. This meant fostering education at many levels and in many directions. Teachers needed to be informed and trained, textbooks rewritten, audiovisual resources created, informative publications written, and research opportunities created for graduate-level students. NASA wisely took the long view of its support for education by including precollege education in its rapidly expanding portfolio of education efforts. Consequently NASA’s education mission began at the kindergarten level and extended all the way to graduate and postgraduate level.

Today, nearly 60 years after the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, education and specifically K-12 education is still a NASA priority. In a 2008 review of NASA’s elementary and secondary education program by the National Academy of Sciences, the reviewing committee spoke of “everyone’s everyday encounter with the productive and powerful engine of science.” The review stated that:

Our ability to maintain this progression of invention, knowledge, creation, and innovation depends upon a similar ability to interest, motivate, and educate the next generation of individuals who will successfully contribute to all facets of our country’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) enterprise…NASA has a unique and important role to play in motivating and inspiring students to consider STEM careers…. (Weiman and Moon 2008)

The NASA K-12 Education Program

Over its nearly 60 years of existence, much of NASA’s support for education has focused on rockets, space missions involving astronauts, and on spacecraft exploring Earth and the inner and outer solar system. The emphasis on astronauts was primarily related to the basics of humans in space – space suits, space food, sleeping, and personal waste management. At first, little educational emphasis was placed on bioastronautics research with the occasional exception of a few crewed missions in which small microgravity investigations, focusing living organisms, were included in the payload. In these cases, the bioastronautics investigations were usually treated more as an aside than an important enhancement to NASA’s educational resources and projects.

Today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration consists of ten field centers and ten additional smaller research facilities. Each field center has an education officer that answers to NASA’s Office of Education located at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. Field center offices support NASA’s overall education mission through participation in national-based educational programs and in locally designed educational programs specifically related to the STEM activities of the individual centers.

NASA’s primary educational programs are based on the activities and missions of its four mission directorates: Aeronautics Research, Human Exploration and Operations, Science, and Space Technology. The primary objective of the Office of Education is to draw on the content from each of the mission directorates to fold it into a coordinated national education program. Currently, more than 20 national projects target grades K-12. These projects include resource support for area schools, classroom visitation, teacher training, competitive student programs in rocketry and robotics, videoconferencing and webcasting, access to NASA facilities such as the drop towers for microgravity experiments at the Glenn Research Center, and flight opportunities for student-designed experiments on the International Space Station (NASA education projects 2015).

Curriculum support is one of the top priorities of education programs at NASA. Virtually every significant space mission – crewed flights, planetary robot probes, orbiters, landers, and Earth satellites – has been accompanied by curriculum material for the K-12 classroom. These materials consist of curriculum guides, with national standards-based content, and hands-on activities, video resources, books, lithographs, and posters.

Additional support for grades K-12 education is directed at informal education facilities such as visitor operations at NASA field centers, museums, science centers, and specialty education centers such as the Challenger Learning Center network and independent or state-funded space centers such as the space center in Kona, Hawaii, dedicated to the memory of astronaut Ellison Onizuka. The primary audience for these facilities consists of K-12 students visiting as a part of organized field trips. The value for enhancing STEM education through both direct and virtual field trips has been established in a number of studies. In an article for the Journal of College Science Teaching, the now Deputy Chief of Education at the Kennedy Space Center wrote “A physical field trip allows students to experience the much more serendipitous nature of the real world. Students can follow different pathways and discover what piques their interests, making the field experience a discovery-prone situation” (Garner and Gallo 2005).

NASA and K-12 Bioastronautics Education

Typically, the bioastronautics content in NASA educational programs has been minimal during most of NASA’s early existence. However, when it comes to bioastronautics relating to astronauts, student and public interest in the daily details of living in space has always been strong. Presentations by NASA representatives to students in auditoriums and classrooms have featured the “funny and icky” parts of living in space. How astronauts eat, sleep, brush their teeth, and go to the bathroom is perennially entertaining. Also featured in programs are the general functions of space suits for keeping astronauts alive while on space walks. With a few exceptions, very focused bioastronautics contents, such as muscle and bone health, radiation effects, immunology, sleep and daily rhythms, nutrition changes, plant growth, small animal studies, etc., have not received significant attention in school programs.

One exception to the scarcity of bioastronautics education resources was a supplemental textbook on human physiology in space written by White and Lujan in 1994 and published by NASA. The book focuses on the effects of microgravity on six body systems including cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary, blood, fluids/electrolytes/hormone systems, muscles and bones, and the neurosensory systems. The book was field-tested in schools in New Mexico but was never distributed nationally. An online version was available for a time but has since been withdrawn because of new and more complete understandings of the microgravity effects on these systems (White and Lujan 1994).

In recent years, NASA has shifted a portion of its education efforts to focus more on bioastronautics. With many years of experience of living and working in space on the International Space Station, NASA and its international partners are actively planning for deep space missions and ultimately living on other worlds such as the Moon and Mars. Keeping humans and other living things alive and thriving in microgravity and in different gravity and radiation environments such as the Moon and Mars have become a NASA priority. This priority has started to affect K-12 programs. Curriculum resources related to bioastronautics and opportunities for actual student participation in in-flight bioastronautics investigations have become common.

Early Bioastronautics Investigation Opportunities for Students

Skylab Student Project

In 1973, following the last of the Apollo missions to the Moon, NASA launched its first orbital space station, Skylab. The station was a modified third stage of the Saturn 5 launch vehicle. Without its usual propellant tanks, the third stage became a 319.8 m3-pressurized laboratory for crews of three astronauts. During its life span, three crews lived and worked in Skylab for a cumulative time in space of 171 days, starting in May of 1973 and ending in February of 1974.

An exhaustive suite of investigations, including astronomy, solar studies, Earth studies, and bioastronautics, was conducted by the Skylab crews. Skylab provided NASA and the scientific community its first opportunity to study the effects of long-term exposure to microgravity and the radiation environment of space. Included in the Skylab investigations were small investigations designed by American high school students.

The Skylab Student Project was announced nationally in 1971. By the time of the closing date in early 1972, 3,409 proposals were received. Following screening by scientists and educators, the accepted proposals were reduced to 25. Seven basic areas of study were covered by experiments selected for flight. Four of these areas specifically related to bioastronautics – botany, microbiology, physiology, and zoology.

The scientific experiments proposed by high school students across the nation constituted an integral part of the Skylab Program. Obviously the students could not personally perform their experiments in space; however, they were intimately involved in their planning and the development of special equipment where such was required. They also took an active part, working closely with NASA scientists, in the preparation of the protocol to be followed by the Skylab astronauts who performed their experiments. Finally, the students were responsible for the analysis of experimental data returned to Earth and the preparation of a final report on their work. (Summerlin 1977, p. 29)

Of the 25 student proposals accepted by NASA, 19 were conducted by the Skylab crews. The other five experiments were deemed incompatible with the Skylab mission or its capabilities. The following is a list of Skylab student investigations that focused on bioastronautics disciplines:


Bacteria and spores


In vitro immunology


Motor-sensory performance


Web formation


Plant growth


Plant phototropism


Cytoplasmic streaming

There were several lessons learned by the Skylab Student Program.

First, it becomes obvious that meaningful space research can be conducted by students…Each (student) sought advice from their science teachers and from professional scientists and engineers…the methods each experimenter used to conduct their tests and record data for analysis on Earth. Their successes and failures are equally valuable. Understanding why one experiment achieved its goal while another did not can provide valuable assistance in the design of future experiments. (Vogt 1983)

Get Away Special (GAS)

NASA’s Get Away Special program, officially known as the Small, Self-Contained Payloads Program, offered interested individuals or groups the opportunity to fly small payloads on the Space Shuttle. Containers, similar in size to metal trash cans, were mounted in unused spaces in the shuttle’s payload bay. Except for up to three external on/off switches in the crew cabin of the orbiter, the experiments were completely self-contained.

The first precollege student-designed GAS experiment flew on Space Shuttle mission STS-7. Science, art, shop, and music students at Camden and Woodrow Wilson High Schools in Camden, New Jersey, spent several years designing and constructing an ant farm investigation. While the ant colony perished when the GAS can they were mounted inside was purged with dry air during preflight preparations, students still rated their investigation a success, in part because of the learning experience of designing a habitat and the data collection instruments (NASA Get Away Special Program Office 1990).

Bioastronautics investigations for Get Away Specials turned out to be problematic for investigators. Maintaining living specimens prior to launch was a challenge because experiments had to be presented to NASA for integration with the Space Shuttle. The process could take many days to weeks before the investigations would reach space. Therefore, most student investigations focused on materials and other physical science questions. Nevertheless, there were several successful bioastronautics investigations flown by undergraduate students. STS-4 carried successful fruit fly genetics, brine shrimp, and algae growth investigations.

The Get Away Special program was terminated by NASA following 2003 the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. By then NASA’s focus was on delivering modules for a new space station, and, consequently, payload bay volume was in great demand.

Shuttle Student Involvement Project

The success of the Skylab Student Project led NASA to create a similar project for the Space Shuttle. Unlike Skylab, which had few opportunities, the Space Shuttle would be flying repeatedly to orbit. Instead of crowding a large group of student investigations into a short period, student investigations could be spaced out over many missions. Hence, the Shuttle Student Involvement Program or SSIP was created.

The SSIP targeted high school students across the United States. Students were encouraged to learn about the Space Shuttle and microgravity and design investigations that would be conducted in the Shuttle orbiter. Investigations would involve significant crew time to set up the investigations, operate them if necessary, and document the investigations with still photographs and videos. Unlike the Get Away Special program, investigations could be loaded in the lockers of the orbiter middeck a day or two before liftoff. This made it possible to do investigations on live specimens.

The first of the SSIP investigations was flown on Space Shuttle mission STS-3. Stowed in a middeck locker was a transparent box partitioned into two chambers. One chamber contained 14 adult worker bees and the other one 24 adult velvet bean caterpillar moths and 24 moth pupae. The objective of the investigation was to observe insect flight in microgravity. STS-3 crew recorded 25 min of video of the insects in action.

Two more of the early SSIP investigations flew on STS-4. One investigation focused on the effects of diet and exercise on lipoprotein profiles. The other looked at the effects of space travel on levels of trivalent chromium in the body. Both investigations took advantage of things already on board the Space Shuttle rather than going through an intensive and very long process of designing and constructing special experiment apparatus and certifying it for flight. In the first case, blood samples were collected prior to launch and upon landing and analyzed for lipoprotein profiles. The second investigation also involved blood samples and compared the results to the chromium content in food consumed in flight.

Many of the SSIP investigations were focused on a wide range of bioastronautics questions. They ran the gamut from effects of microgravity on sponges, a colony of 3,300 honeybees, statoliths in corn root caps, measurement of auxin levels and starch grains in plant roots, astronaut biofeedback training, arthritis, effects on aging of brains cells, and bone healing in rats.

In the midst of the SSIP program, a similar set of student investigations was specifically designed by high school students from El Paso and Isleta, Texas. A group of 12 Texas student experiments were flown on the STS-51G mission. Eight of the twelve investigations centered on bioastronautics. They included lettuce seeds, barley seeds, brine shrimp, turnip seeds, planaria regeneration, antibiotics, soil mold, and chlorella and kefir.

Over time, the SSIP ran into difficulties with timely manifesting student investigations. In some instances, the student investigators had graduated from high school and became college undergraduate or graduate students before their investigations actually flew. One student investigator’s experiment was lost during the tragic destruction of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51-L. The investigation sent chicken embryos to space to determine whether or not cell division was affected by microgravity. During the downtime for the Space Shuttle program, as safety improvements were made in the solid rocket boosters of the Shuttle and crew systems and procedures, the egg embryo investigation was recreated for a new flight opportunity. The “Chix in Space” investigation finally flew on the STS-29 mission 3 years later. Of the embryos sent to space, several were dissected upon landing for histological, morphological, and elemental analysis. Other embryos were allowed to go full term and eight chicks eventually hatched.

The Shuttle Student Involvement Program eventually morphed into the NASA Student Involvement Program (NSIP) where students of all grades could apply to NASA to participate in various projects. K-4 students could participate in language arts programs, and K-8 could participate in science and technology journalism activities. NSIP created aerospace technology engineering challenges, missions to Mars, and Earth change for upper grades. NSIP still offered spaceflight opportunities, but they were now open to teams rather than students. As the demands for Shuttle flight to focus on the assembly of the International Space Station grew, the NSIP was terminated.


Shuttle mission STS-87 (1997) featured a cooperative American/Ukrainian student plant growth experiment. It was called CUE-TSIPS, standing for Collaborative Ukrainian Experiment-Teachers and Students Investigating Plants in Space. Students in both the United States and Ukraine constructed simulated flight hardware to raise Brassica rapa plants in their classrooms, while astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia conducted the same activity in microgravity. Brassica rapa, also known as Wisconsin Fast Plants, is a variety of the large family of cruciferous plants that include mustard, radish, and broccoli. Brassica rapa was selectively bred to produce a very short seed to seed cycle to aid in genetic research to improve crop disease resistance. The plant turned out to also be useful in education settings because its life cycle could be completed in a month – ideal for student research. The plant was also ideal for the STS-97 mission, which orbited Earth for 15 days 16 h because seed planting to flowering takes only 2 weeks (Williams and Hill 1986, p. 1389).

While no firm figures on student participation are available, it is estimated that 50,000 American middle and high school students and 20,000 Ukrainian students participated in the investigation. Thousands of data sets were reported by the students, including plant height, number of seedpods produced, and average numbers of seeds produced for comparison with the data collected on the plants grown in microgravity.

Seeds in Space

One of the first of many bioastronautics investigations on the potential effects of the microgravity/radiation environment in space began with the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984. Challenger carried NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility to independently orbit Earth. On board the facility were many payloads consisting of a wide range of materials to be exposed to the space environment to check their durability for future space missions. A canister, called Seeds In Space, contained millions of tomato seeds provided by the Park Seed Company. Upon the facility’s return 5 years later, the seeds were packaged and distributed to more than 64,000 teachers in the United States and 30 foreign countries. Teachers received seeds flown in space and seeds that were stored in a similar container on the ground.

It is estimated that more than three million students participated in the growth of the seeds. Students collected comparison data on space-flown seeds and those on the ground. Plant height, leaf production, tomato production, and general plant health and appearance were studied. In spite of 5-year exposure to microgravity and space radiation, no significant differences between the space-flown and ground plants were discovered. It did turn out that space is an excellent location for storing seeds in a dormant condition (Park Seed Company 2015).

Flying seeds in space on the Space Shuttle and on the International Space Station has become one of the most common student bioastronautics investigations. Tomato seeds for student investigations have been flown repeatedly on the shuttle and the International Space Station. Other student-based investigations have flown mimosa seeds (Canada), “rocket salad” seeds (United Kingdom), and cinnamon basil seeds as a part of the STS-118 mission in which American teacher Barbara Morgan flew to the International Space Station.

Student seeds in space investigations have not resulted in significant scientific knowledge advances. They have, however, led to the involvement of millions of students around the world in real science investigations. The Tomatosphere project based in Canada estimates that their 13-year project of promoting seeds in space investigations has engaged more than three million students. In 2014, over 17,800 classes participated in the program across Canada and the United States (Tomatosphere 2015).

Recent Bioastronautics Investigation Opportunities for Students

Life Science in Space

Over a period of 4 years, a series of student-based bioastronautics investigations were flown on the Space Shuttle. BioServe Space Technologies (BST) and the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) designed the investigations. BST designed and integrated the investigation hardware and living specimens, and the BCM designed the classroom instructions and ground-based hardware, conducted teacher training, and provided an archive for all flight investigation data.

The investigations include Butterflies in Space, Spiders in Space, Ants in Space, and Plants in Space. The curriculum guides created for each investigation focused on background information on the organisms, how to build ground-based chambers, and data collection. They did not provide specific instructions as to what kind of data students should collect. Instead, students were challenged to ask their own questions about the effects of microgravity on the flight organisms by comparing the flight images and videos downloaded with the behavior of their control organisms. The Life Science in Space investigations drew participation from every US state and more than 20 countries around the world. Support for this endeavor was provided in part by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (BCM 2015).

Student Spaceflight Experiments Program

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program or SSEP is similar to the Shuttle Student Involvement Program during the early years of the Space Shuttle. SSEP is offered to students through the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education. The program was launched in 2010 and, unlike the SSIP, aimed at high school students; it is open to students in grades 5–12, 2-year community colleges, and 4-year colleges and universities. Through the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education, flight opportunities are also extended to students in other countries. The program states that SSEP is “a commitment to student ownership in exploration. To science as journey, and to the joys of learning” (SSEP 2015).
  • Just 1 year following its conception, SSEP flew its first student investigations aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle. By 2015, SSEP was recruiting student proposals for its ninth mission.

  • SSEP closely follows Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS 2015) and further requires students to have the following:
    • A critical understanding of the space technology, and associated spaceflight operations, used to transport payload to and from low Earth orbit and conduct microgravity experiments on ISS

    • A critical understanding of the engineering specifications for the mini-laboratory, which provide real-world constraints on experiment design

    • Mathematics to design a viable experiment to operate in the mini-laboratory, through refining of sample (fluid and solid) concentrations and volumes, defining a timeline that is consistent with the experiment’s duration aboard ISS, and defining an approach to data analysis after the experiment returns to Earth (SSEP 2015)

In 2014, SSEP received 748 proposals, representing more than 7,000 students and teachers from 18 communities for its sixth mission to the International Space Station. Through a multistep review process, the proposals were reduced to 54 finalists of which 18 investigations were selected for flight. Thirteen of the flight investigations focused on bioastronautics topics. Included in the flight investigations were studies on mushrooms, yeast, waste decomposition, plant germination, mosquitos, houseflies, biocides and bacteria, plant tropisms, and brine shrimp.

Orion’s Quest

Orion’s Quest is an Internet-based education program for K-12 students. Their mission “employs current NASA research to reach and inspire ‘the next generation of explorers” (Orion’s Quest 2015).

Classes in participating schools download actual flight investigation data, such as images and videos taken of plants and animals flown on the International Space Station, and collect various measurements that are reported to the original principal investigator of the flight experiment. Orion’s Quest missions include studies of model organisms such as Caenorhabditis elegans and Drosophila melanogaster and other organisms such as spiders, butterflies, plants, and microbes. Some of their investigations adapt the K-12 bioastronautics investigations done on the International Space Station by the Baylor College of Medicine in partnership with BioServe Space Technologies.

Selected K-12 Bioastronautics Education Resources

Space Life Sciences

Space Life Sciences is a series of podcasts plus lessons organized by the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) with support from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). NSBRI scientists describe their research in different bioastronautics fields such as diagnosing injuries in space, microgravity effects on the heart, effects on muscles and bones, sleep, and remote medical sensors. The podcasts are supplemented with classroom resources such as lesson plans and curriculum guides (BCM 2015).

Bioastronautics Curriculum Guides for Grades K-12

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has collected a large library of downloadable educator guides and other resources focusing on bioastronautics topics. Included are more than 200 guides and other resources on the brain in space, plant tropisms, space suits, radiation exposure, and much more (NASA Curriculum Resources 2015).

Worldwide Bioastronautics Education Resources

“The space station has a unique ability to capture the imaginations of both students and teachers worldwide. The presence of humans onboard the station provides a foundation for numerous educational activities aimed at capturing that interest and motivating the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM” (NASA Space Station Research and Technology 2015).

The following sites (the European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, German Aerospace Center, and Canadian Space Agency) provide bioastronautics resources for teachers and students:


Canadian Space Agency (CSA) tells educators “Let us bring space to your classroom and encourage your students’ interest in science, math, and technology.” CSA provides teachers with small educator guides on bioastronautics topics such as the need for space suits and much more extensive “3D” resources such as “Planting The Seed for Space Exploration,” a guide on the importance of plants (http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/educators/).


The German Aerospace Center (DLR) established the “DLR School Labs,” which reaches out to more than 100,000 students from elementary to doctoral candidates. The Campus’ motto “Out of the Classroom – into the Lab!” encourages independent study in the natural sciences and technology and offers space-focused career traineeships, which is administered by the human resources offices at each DLR location (http://www.dlr.de/schoollab/en/desktopdefault.aspx).


The European Space Agency (ESA) provides a wide range of education resources for teachers and their students. One multilevel collection of curriculum guides focuses on the bioastronautics topic of astronauts and the International Space Station, curriculum resources and teacher training center on missions unique to ESA, such as the Rosetta Mission to a comet, and cooperative international missions (http://www.esa.int/Education/Classroom_resources).


The Japanese (JAXA) Space Education Center has as its mission “space as the unique source of interest, imagination and inspiration” for students. The Center’s “Cosmic College” runs a formal education program that coordinates curricula with select schools to develop grade-appropriate materials for subjects including social studies, music, and home economics. The “Cosmic College” offers kindergarten to high school level programs, supports space education events, holds classes for children from elementary to high school grade levels, and supports educational leaders and teachers throughout Japan to assist in this effort (Education Center https://edu.jaxa.jp/en/activities/).


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Allied Health SciencesBaylor College of MedicineHoustonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marlene Y. MacLeish
    • 1
  1. 1.National Space Biomedical Research InstituteMorehouse School of MedicineAtlantaUSA