We live in a technology-driven world where accelerating innovation and change are dominant themes. The challenge to our educational systems is twofold. First, we must provide our nation’s youth a comprehensive education, including science, to prepare them for the world in which they will live and work in the coming decades.

But there is also a second and equally important task: nurturing the next generation of scientists and engineers whose new discoveries and inventions will improve the lives of American citizens and transform every sector of our nation’s economy. The ability of the United States to remain competitive depends on constantly renewing this resource of young scientific talent. So how do we meet this grand challenge of providing an environment that educates and inspires young students for the STEM-related careers so vital for our future?

We believe that the answer must go beyond the bounds of schools and tap into the full resources of our nation’s technological and scientific genius. Our response has been to use the ISS National Laboratory aboard the International Space Station, arguably humanity’s greatest engineering achievement and a remarkable scientific platform orbiting some 250 miles above the Earth. It is a resource that stirs the minds and imagination of our nation’s youth, and that we believe can be used to stimulate interest in STEM.

The ISS National Laboratory is under the management of our organization, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), through a cooperative agreement with NASA. Our mission is heavily focused on the goal of introducing the scientific communities—academic, commercial and governmental—to the opportunity to carry out unique forms of research in microgravity that are not possible or are less effectively conducted in terrestrial-based facilities.

But as a segment of our congressionally mandated scope of work, we also sponsor programs of science education for our nation’s youth, not just from learning about the ISS but in enabling students to actually perform their own experiments using ISS resources. Over the course of four years, we have built a consortium of over 40 educational partners, offering a wide range of ISS-based education programs and services. Titled Space Station Explorers, this program now reaches over 2 million students of all ages, girls and boys, from K–12 through college and beyond, in venues from formal schools to museums, after-school programs and the web.

Participating students have designed and launched hundreds of experiments on the ISS, and in some cases have used those experiments to compete for prestigious awards. They have studied the effects of microgravity on living organisms, both plant and animal; programmed and operated robots; monitored climate change; performed genetic research; and used amateur (ham) radio to communicate with astronauts aboard the ISS.

Our students are not simply observers but participants in the effort to extend the foundation of Earth-based science to the region of space we call low Earth orbit. In the process, the ISS literally becomes an extension of school science labs, as astronauts demonstrate core science principles, and even read science-themed books to younger students to connect them with life in space.

We are gratified by the response of students and their mentors, the rapid growth of the Space Station Explorers program, and the many examples of participants choosing a career path in science. The true impact of the program will be more fully realized for years to come and will be measured in the form of transformed lives, career choices, scientific discoveries and new businesses launched.  

The success of the ISS National Laboratory program illustrates a key message: solving the nation’s STEM challenge is not just a task for our schools. It requires an ecosystem in which businesses, laboratories and other entities engage students in the real world of science and technology, using assets such as the ISS to support the mission. And by harnessing the resources of a government-sponsored facility, and with the active support of NASA, our STEM program uses less than 10 percent of the CASIS budget, while making a positive impact on our core research objectives.

We believe that the Space Station Explorers program, with its emphasis on student research, can serve as a model for other major research facilities, especially those supported by federal funds. There is a shared interest and, we believe, responsibility, to address the nation’s growing need for scientists and technicians to support our technology-driven society and economy.