Online Program Brings Power of Immersive Space Simulations to STEM Learning | VHS Learning

VHS Learning is here to support you through whatever your school year brings. Click here to learn more about how we can help.

Online Program Brings Power of Immersive Space Simulations to STEM Learning

By Jane Gallagher, VP of Operations, The Virtual High School (Inc.)

 Online learning has increasingly become a viable option for schools and districts to provide their students with improved access to a greater number of the courses they need. Teachers are becoming more adept at incorporating online resources into their daily instruction, and the oldest K-12 online programs are now more than twenty years old. Hundreds of thousands of students are using online instruction either full-time, or to supplement their local school’s offerings. Today, students have many choices to utilize the power of online education to make learning personal and meaningful to them.   

What exactly is online learning? Defining online learning can be difficult because many online education terms do not have standard definitions and there are many different types of programs, both full-time and supplemental. Some programs are completely online while others combine online and face-to-face instruction. Courses also differ as to whether there is student-teacher and student-student interaction, and they also differ by type of instruction and method of delivery.  


According to Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning, in academic year 2014-2015 more than 462,000 students took courses from statewide online schools.  State virtual schools operated in 26 states, providing supplemental online courses to their students. These state virtual schools served over 815,000 semester course enrollments. About 60% of public school students live in states without a statewide virtual school. These estimated 2.2 million students took approximately 3.8 million courses from many different online course suppliers. Most online courses (73.9%) were taken in core subject areas (Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies), with the remaining 26.1% taken in Electives, Health/PE, World Languages, and Arts.


The most common types of online offerings at the pre-college level are:

  • State Virtual Schools which are typically state-funded agencies.
  • Multi-district online schools which are typically charter schools operated by for-profit companies.
  • Single-district schools which are full-time and/or supplemental schools that use district funds to reach schools within their geographical area.
  • Consortia and other organizations that are an association of two or more schools, districts, or regional service agencies that pool resources to expand online learning options for students, such as The Virtual High School (VHS).

This article focuses on the first high school supplemental online course program in the United States – The Virtual High School (VHS). VHS was founded by a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant in 1996. The goal was to determine if online learning was a viable option to provide all students with equal access to quality educational options regardless of geographic location. It is clear based on the longevity of VHS and the prevalence of so many pre-college online and blended learning options across the United States and around the world, that online learning is here to stay.

The Virtual High School (VHS Inc.) is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that is bringing the power of immersive space simulations to STEM learning for middle and high school students. In partnership with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a nonprofit organization that manages the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, VHS has developed an online program called Space Station Academy. Through Space Station Academy, students can go on a Mission to the ISS, or learn about Science from Space. The goal of the program, developed in cooperation with the Association of Space Explorers and the Technical Education Research Center (TERC), is to get students excited about science, technology, engineering and math at an early age – and foster interest in further study.

"Our courses use real-world scenarios and teach practical skills to keep students captivated in the subject matter," said Carol Ribeiro, President & CEO of The Virtual High School. "That relevance also means that students are exploring potential college majors and career paths. Space Station Academy enables students to engage directly with astronauts and scientists who have worked on board the International Space Station (ISS) and learn how science research on the ISS benefits life on Earth. Students investigate our planet with cutting-edge observation technology. Students learn about STEM subjects with an emphasis on Earth, physical science and engineering, and life sciences. The experience is designed to inspire students to consider careers as astronauts, scientists, engineers or one of the thousands of emerging new jobs in the aerospace industry. It's an example of how schools can broaden their curriculum in unique ways using online and blended learning."

Space Station Academy treats students as cadets in training for their first flight to space. They undergo pre-flight training as well as a realistic simulation of a launch and complete a mission on the ISS. Since the mission focuses on Earth observation and photography, cadets see views of the Earth from the ISS windows, work with the same mapping and targeting software as the ISS astronauts, and explore hundreds of dramatic photos taken by astronauts who have been aboard the ISS.

Students can participate in Space Station Academy’s Science from Space during regularly scheduled study hall sessions in a classroom period that their school allocates for the course or as an independent study at home. The course requires about five hours per week for the duration of the semester-long course.

The 15-week course Science from Space includes interactives, videos, interviews with astronauts and updates from the real ISS. The five course modules cover three main phases. In the first phase, "preflight training" students explore the design, structure and primary objectives of the ISS. They also learn about orbits, launch vehicles and life in space. Next, students experience a simulated launch to the ISS in the Soyuz where the crew welcomes them.

The next few modules cover the second phase, "on-orbit explorations”. Students complete a variety of activities, including an investigation of the effects of prolonged weightlessness via an experiment to visualize loss of bone density and to devise an exercise plan based on the physiological barriers of space travel. Students use cutting-edge tools to observe Earth from space, and they are tasked with completing several virtual missions around the station such as building a robotic arm and performing a spacewalk to repair a broken solar panel.

The final module is the "post-flight" phase where students face the challenge of reentering the atmosphere. They review technologies and skills associated with safely dealing with the friction of reentry and the methods used for landing safely on Earth. As a culminating activity, they prepare a Mission Space Report that showcases the benefits of space exploration in the domains of life science, Earth science and physical science.

Dan Barstow, CASIS Senior Education Manager, notes, "Space Station Academy offers realistic training and on-orbit experiences to make the students feel as if they are real astronauts. We're giving students a chance to have a glimpse of life on the International Space Station. The activities not only cultivate science interests, but also develop students' research, teamwork and communication skills. Space Station Academy emphasizes core disciplinary ideas, cross cutting concepts and science practices in life, physical and Earth science, and the program is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)."

VHS also offers a shorter, 4-week version of the course, Mission to the ISS, as an extra-curricular activity. In this course, students hone and expand their STEM skills by using mathematics and computational thinking, analyzing and interpreting data, planning and carrying out investigations, using evidence in arguments and more.

In School, After School or At Home

Online learning can be a great way to encourage learning outside of the school day. Through programs such as those offered by VHS, and after-school organizations such as Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs, students can have access to innovative online learning programs outside of their traditional classroom environment. In 2016, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition (SpaceCom) presented the Spacecom STEM Award to the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs of America, with the award to be used to fund club member access to the after-school version of Space Station Academy through The Virtual High School.

The context of the announcement itself emphasized the potential of STEM and space. During The Space Commerce Conference and Exposition (SpaceCom) on November 17, 2016, astronaut Shane Kimbrough, located on the International Space Station, made a video introduction for CASIS President and Executive Director Gregory Johnson. Kimbrough explained how CASIS supports STEM initiatives that inspire new generations of scientists, pilots and adventurers as part of its mission of managing the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory. Afterward, Johnson announced the Boys and Girls Clubs of America as the award winner.

“At NASA we continue to pave the path to the stars, but it’s our STEM advocates who will inspire the journey,” said Kimbrough, from the International Space Station.  “This year’s recipient of the SpaceCom STEM Award will be the Boys and Girls Clubs, to be put towards scholarships for students to attend Space Station Academy, an online course offered through the nonprofit, Virtual High School,” said Johnson.

As a result, The Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs offered club members Mission to the ISS and almost 500 students in upper elementary and middle school grades enrolled in the course and took a simulated mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The first cohort consisted of 131 students from Central Florida Boys and Girls Clubs, Suncoast Boys and Girls Clubs, Hernando County Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Genesis Center, with additional student contingents taking the course quarterly in April, June, and September 2016.

In addition to providing online instructors for the course and training on-site mentors from the participating Boys and Girls Clubs, VHS enhanced the Space Station Academy program to include guidelines for blended instruction and on-site group activities. The on-site mentors recruited and enrolled Boys and Girls Club members into the courses, monitored those cadets and provide face-to-face assistance with activities. Throughout the program, students honed and expanded their STEM skills by using mathematics and computational thinking, analyzing and interpreting data, all in the context of a realistic, virtual mission to space.

"Our mission aligns with that of the Boys and Girls Club - to help young people prepare for the future and provide opportunities for career exploration and educational enhancement," said Carol Ribeiro, President & CEO of VHS.  "With this partnership, we're able to share our amazing program with hundreds of children at Boys and Girls Clubs, and in the process, we hope to spark an interest that drives them to consider a career in math, science, engineering or technology.”

Going to Space During School Hours

In Maine, Strong Elementary School's sixth-grade cadets went to outer space for 15 weeks, all without leaving their local classroom. The students participated in The Virtual High School’s Science from Space, the semester-length for-credit science course within the Space Station Academy program. The course sent students on a virtual mission to the International Space Station to investigate key concepts in Earth science, life science, physical science and engineering. Students worked through an intensive series of lessons developed and supported by astronauts, scientists and educators.

The student’s local school science teacher noted that because the curriculum remained challenging throughout the entire semester, students remained engaged in their learning. She noted that providing students with the opportunity to see Earth from the vantage point of space helped them better understand our world. They observed various geographies, current climate conditions on Earth, discussed historical data and analyzed what they were seeing and possible implications for the future. The course helped them better understand how they can make a difference in the world around them.

Students started their semester-length course with virtual explorations of the space station and learned how astronauts train and prepare for missions. They performed experiments and conducted investigations on human physiology, on the effects of microgravity, the traumas of space flight, and life on the space station. They studied physical science, looking at the forces vehicles have placed upon them in space. They also learned about ways research on the ISS could benefit lives on Earth.

Space Station Academy helps students develop their STEM skills but also helps them learn other important skills that can be used in college, careers, and everyday life. Learning how to work in a group, cooperate with others, think logically and critically, and complete work on time, are all-important skills for future success. In college and in work environments, using technology and online resources are commonplace. VHS courses require all these things and more, and students complete work and experiments offline, as well as online, in a community within their online classroom.

Educational Opportunities for Rural Students

Online learning like the Space Station Academy program can provide schools in rural districts with educational opportunities not available locally. The Western Maine Education Collaborative uses The Virtual High School’s program to give their rural students learning opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable to them. “We're reaping the benefits of a long-standing collaboration,” said Kristie Littlefield, Executive Director of WMEC. “This was an opportunity for middle-school students to participate in a high-quality experience.”

Unique Online STEM Courses

In addition to Space Station Academy, VHS offers more than 200 unique online course offerings, including 23 Advanced Placement courses, 12 computer science courses and a variety of math, science, engineering, arts and humanities courses. Virtual High School’s unique options often spark student passion and interests.

“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” -Marshall McLuhan.  In the VHS course Oceanography students go onboard the USS Cyber, a virtual oceanographic research vessel modeled after the flagship of NOAA’s fleet, for a sail that begins in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and ends in San Diego, California. As the crew of the ship, students perform scientific experiments and collect data that will teach them about the geology, chemistry, and physics of the ocean. From the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia to the Caribbean and Antarctica, from the coral reefs to the hydrothermal vent communities deep in the ocean, students make observations about the sea’s ecosystems and the sometimes-unexpected life within them. There are no traditional tests in the course; students participate fully as members of the expedition and work on individual and group projects – best of all, students pack their virtual bags and become seafarers without ever leaving home!  

Pre-college exploration of future careers is an important part of the work done at VHS. In the VHS online STEM-related career course is Climate Change, an honors level course with curriculum that is anchored in the scientific investigation of carbon chemistry, the Earth's energy budget, paleoclimatology and climate data sources. Students interpret current research, evaluate the latest news and then work together to investigate decision-making processes around public policy. The course instructor is an award-winning teacher who is a NOAA Climate Steward and whose science curriculum has been showcased at the North American Association of Environmental Education Conference, the National Science Teachers Association Conference, the Global STEMx Education Conference and the Massachusetts STEM Summit.

Students taking the VHS full-year one credit science course Earth and Space Systems Science develop a deep appreciation of Earth as a system, and then consider human impact on this system. Starting from the farthest reaches of space and time, and journeying toward Earth, students will investigate Earth and space science. The course is organized into three-week, theme-based modules that explore Earth’s place in the universe and solar system, examine the five spheres of the Earth (atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere), and consider the impact of human activity on Earth. Students engage in a series of inquiry-based and investigative activities designed to have them become participants in Earth science instead of passive observers. As they learn Earth science, they incorporate the same methods that scientists employ in their work and use the same technology tools scientists use to “do science”. 

Using science datasets, visualizations, animations, interactives, and modeling activities, students study important science concepts from multiple perspectives and contexts. In many modules, students can join citizen science projects and add data to ongoing science research efforts, giving them the opportunity to both experience the science process first hand, and to apply NGSS Science and Engineering Principles in an authentic research project. 

In place of a textbook, Earth and Space Systems Science incorporates a variety of multimedia resources. Students perform hands-on and virtual investigations to develop a deeper understanding of earth science, incorporating the same online data sets and rich technology tools that scientists use, including Google Earth, ImageJ and GIS (Geographic Information System). Students engage in collaborative activities to generate and evaluate class data, and discuss observations, trends and questions. In each module, students complete a “Challenge,” a summative performance assessment project where they demonstrate how to apply the knowledge they have acquired in a variety of ways.

“Our Earth and Space courses offer an assortment of learning experiences to match the diverse backgrounds and interests of the students in our global classrooms," added Amy Michalowski, Dean of The Virtual High School. "The offerings fit in perfectly with The VHS mission of providing students with online access to high-quality educational experiences that inspire, ignite and deepen learning." and

Find out more about The Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.)

The mission of The Virtual High School is to provide students and teachers with collaborative and engaging learning opportunities. The vision of VHS is to prepare students to be successful in college, careers, and life. Since 1996, the Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization has set the standard for quality online education. The VHS provides middle and high school online courses for students and professional development for educators. The organization also meets the unique educational needs of schools through custom course development, individualized course offerings, and support for blended learning initiatives. For more information about VHS programs or any of the many VHS online or blended course offerings for students and teachers, please visit The Virtual High School or call (978) 897-1900.

This article has been featured on the following websites:

The Edvocate