Geeky Parent Guide: Exploring Science on the International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) isn’t just a dream from a wonderful science fiction movie. It is a reality that looks to extend humanity’s reach into space in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“Through advancing the state of scientific knowledge of our planet, looking after our health, developing advanced technologies and providing a space platform that inspires and educates the science and technology leaders of tomorrow, the benefits of the ISS will drive the legacy of the space station as its research strengthens economies and enhances the quality of life here on Earth for all people.”

–Reference Guide to the International Space Station, Utilization Edition September 2015

Whether you follow @Space_Station on Twitter, @ISS on Facebook, or iss on Instagram, there is so much information available that it might seem impossible to keep track of everything going on in the world – well, outside of this world and in the place astronauts call home. What does a day in the life of an astronaut look like? Let’s scratch the surface and explore that moving “star” in the night sky to discover a variety of cool things that have been happening on the International Space Station, and how you and your kids might enjoy all of this content together.

What would start off a day better than taking a walk outside? FUN FACT: There have been 208 spacewalks from the space station since its launch into orbit in 1998.

“Expedition 54 Flight Engineers Mark Vande Hei of NASA and Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency” spent nearly six hours on a spacewalk on February 16, which happens to be the shortest duration this year. For this particular exercise, the pair of spacewalkers moved two hands for the robotic arm, “Canadarm2,” which is “capable of handling large payloads and helped build the entire orbiting complex.” One of these hands was moved to storage for later use, while the other will be sent back to Earth for an overhaul and will then return to the ISS as a spare part. If you didn’t get to watch any part of the live feed on Facebook, families can watch a brief animation depicting the astronauts’ spacewalk and what they accomplished.

Along with regular maintenance to make sure the station is in good working order, crew members are constantly working on a variety of different projects. While all of the experiments being conducted might be highly advanced work, NASA’s ability to effectively communicate their work comes in the form of detailed lesson plans for educators. Along with STEM-based lessons, there are educational components for parents to follow with their kids, including “STEMonstrations” and “Space to Ground” – series that help explain important, day-to-day effects of space.

Exercise is “an integral part of the astronauts’ daily routine aboard the International Space Station.” From the space station, Flight Engineer Joe Acaba shares with viewers what happens to muscles and bones over an extended period in space and explains how astronauts exercise to combat the potentially debilitating effects. They provide classroom activities based on bone density and muscle stress, and parents could also do these “Classroom Connections” with their kids as a great way to process what has been discussed in the STEMonstrations video on exercise.

For the February 8 report of “Space to Ground,” the quick video discusses Acaba’s preparation for a microgravity experiment that “aims to improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution in combustion processes here on Earth, while also learning the best ways to prevent fires in space.” The next topic addresses the goal to expand our knowledge of growing plants in microgravity in the hopes of providing a sustainable source of food for long-term missions, “especially those that fly way beyond the Earth.” Last, the science module, Columbus, turned ten years old after its initial launch with the shuttle Atlantis, which was attached using the robotic arm. Tests run in this module include “material science, fluid physics, life science, and technology development.” This series provides families with quick and easy updates, which besides being fun to learn, might eventually help your kids discover some fields they find interesting for future endeavors.

In addition to running tests, NASA and the International Space Station are always looking to engage with students. Nothing could provide better proof of this than the Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy Space Station Challenge, which allowed students between the ages of 13 and 18 to “propose an experiment that could be done on the International Space Station, taking into account the powers of your favorite Guardians of the Galaxy characters, Rocket and Groot!”

Not only did this provide students a fun connection with the scientific world, it gave students the chance to think outside of the box, because their classroom experiences only resulted in gravity-based conclusions. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) teamed up with Marvel Entertainment, and those that submitted (by January 31) will have the opportunity to be one of two experiments selected that will be tested on the space station. Much like the characters’ special abilities, the variety of potential submissions would revolve around plant biology and technology development.

For parents hoping to showcase how important reading is to their little ones who may not be ready to explore the depths of science yet, what better way than to show astronauts reading in space. Story Time from Space, a project of nonprofit Global Space Education Foundation, sent astronauts living aboard the ISS children's books to read on video. The videos include various crew members reading from different parts of the space station, and some of these stories include "Rosie Revere, Engineer," "The Wizard Who Saved the World," and "Next Time You See a Sunset." If you’re looking for a way to get your kids excited about books, or perhaps you’re just looking for new bedtime stories, play one of these videos with the crew members floating and reading – a perfect way to end the day and let your kids’ dreams reach for the stars.

If you’re interested in tracking all things ISS, especially in the night sky, check out the NASA App. It provides live updates, such as tracking the location of the station, and includes sighting opportunities based on your Earthbound location.

What would you want to learn about the International Space Station? Would you want to ask crew members questions about day-to-day operations or special tests? What else would you like to see the Geeky Parent Guide explore with regards to the ISS? Share your thoughts below or reach out on Twitter and Facebook to start a conversation with your friends. If you like this content, and would like to see more of it, don’t forget to like this page and give it a five-star rating.

Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.

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