Space…the final frontier. These words were uttered at the opening of each episode in the popular Star Trek series. But only a small number of people have actually ventured into space. Those [who are] earth-bound may only dream of what it is like to be in space or what it would be like to be a part of the space program. For a few thousand middle school students (grades 5-8) participating in the space program has become a reality and they need not leave earth to do this. This educational experience is realized through a NASA sponsored program called EarthKAM (Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students).

[Delete this paragraph.] The philosophy behind EarthKAM is as follows: allow students the capability to take images of Earth from a camera mounted in the shuttle and to use these images for investigative projects. How is this accomplished?

An astronaut mounts a digital camera in a shuttle window (there is no film in the traditional sense). Therefore the camera is fixed and cannot be pointed. The camera is connected to a computer that both controls the camera and can store images taken by it. The computer is linked to NASA ground control and finally via a telecommunications line to the Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the central "brain" of EarthKAM . The UCSD MOC houses all the necessary targeting software the student’s will need as well as the image processing software to convert the camera’s pictures to a web-based environment.

During a mission, the students use these interactive web pages to target and select [the parts of Earth they wish to photograph]. The orbit propagation program helps the students select the Earth location that the shuttle will be when they wish a picture taken. A handy orbit map allows them to click on a location that the shuttle will pass over during the mission (Figure 1). The software verifies that the target selected will be available to the camera during that orbit. If an invalid target is made (location is not viewable by camera or shuttle is not at that location), the student is notified immediately and then another selection can be made. A valid target will result in the program displaying such information as the orbit, latitude and longitude, and MET (Mission Elapsed Time) The MET is the most significant data point since it defines the exact time the shuttle (hence camera) will be positioned over the target selected. At the selected MET, the camera will snap the picture.

The UCSD MOC always verifies the integrity of the request before passing this via the NASA link into the computer connected to the camera. Also, duplicate selections result in only one picture taken, thus avoiding unnecessary redundancy. It’s important to note that since each orbit is 90 minutes, the shuttle will only be in daylight 45 minutes per orbit. So it’s important that picture be taken during this 45 minutes as the camera operates only in the visible light bands.

Once the picture(s) is (are) taken, they are stored and compressed for transmission back to the UCSD MOC. They will then be converted to JPEG and GIF formats for easy retrieval via a standard web browser over the Internet (see, and click on "data system"). Pictures can expect to show up on the EarthKAM web site within hours of being taken. This delay is due to communications bandwidth availability and the need to "batch up" enough pictures to transmit back to the UCSD MOC. [Compress sections above to two paragraphs if possible.]

Students use the images for classroom projects involving science, geography, mathematics and space science and it helps develop their skills in doing investigation and image analysis. A side effect of this is that they also learn to use the Internet as a tool for learning. Before the Internet, this EarthKAM experience would not have been feasible. [This section should go into more detail -- what are specific applications students have used the images for?  What were their reactions to using the photos? What projects were they doing before EarthKAM?  Why is the use of EarthKAM an improvement? What feedback have teachers provided?]

During the first four missions some 2000 high-resolution images of Earth were taken. What we have is the beginning of an historical record of the Earth via images that subsequent generations can use to see what is happening to our planet. [This is interesting.  Is there a project underway to create an archive?  Is that something students will be putting together?  Who will maintain it?  Will it be publicly accessible? Other articles have shown a high degree of student motivation when it comes to publishing on the web and having their work read by a wider audience. Could this be an example of using classroom work to provide a public service project?]

 EarthKAM.jpg (56585 bytes)

Figure 1: Target Selection Page

Although each participating school will adapt their projects on local opportunities and priorities, there are three general components of EarthKAM:

    1. Working with Images of Earth – A wealth of images are available to support extended classes in Earth Science, mathematics, geography, social studies, math communications and even art. Teachers and students use the EarthKAM web site to search and access those images needed to do their investigations.
    2. Designing and Conducting Investigations – Here is a unique opportunity to not only participate in the space program, but to do first-hand scientific investigations. Some past investigations are exploring human settlement patterns, mountain ranges or even agricultural patterns. Participating schools must submit a proposal outlining their intended project and from this they will select targets pertinent to their project.
    3. Setting up A Student Mission Operations Center (SMOC) and targeting during the Mission – Normally there is one, sometimes two, EarthKAM missions per year. Each school must establish a SMOC from which they will access the EarthKAM web site during the mission. The SMOC’s functions are:
    1. to communicate with other SMOCs and EarthKAM personnel
    2. to obtain latest weather information
    3. to track the shuttle’s orbit; and
    4. to select and submit targets

Before the mission, some training is needed (10-15 hours) to learn the procedures required for targeting and to work with the images once they are posted to the web site. [Give more detail about this.  Who does the training? What problems are involved in setting up an SMOC?]

During the mission, students and teachers are often at the SMOC round-the-clock while the camera is operational (the camera is not mounted at all time during the mission). [Isn't this a problem for middle-school students?]

Identification of schools for participation in an EarthKAM mission is organized through the Education Divisions of the NASA Field Centers based on school/division interest, educational technology, experience and commitment. For more information see

Through the NASA Education Program and the EarthKAM program, we see an example of government and education joining to support national and state-based science, geography and technology standards. We also have, in this program, the ability to give teachers and students a first-hand experience in developing observation skills and real-life inquiry approaches. Coupled with this is the opportunity for developing teamwork and communication skills not only within the school they attend, but also among schools participating in the mission.

Much is said about the value of the Internet to the educational process of students. Here, in EarthKAM, we have an example of a positive use of the Internet to bring a dynamic distant learning experience to thousands of students. It’s interactive, almost real-time, with variables that are constantly changing. Students have to make decisions that are time-dependent and they can see the results of their efforts within a short time. It is an experience that will stay with them forever. [Combine the above two paragraphs for a conclusion.]

For more information on EarthKAM see:


Critical Reviews

This article would be far more valuable if it could include the experiences of a school using this new resource, or some summary of user applications. These may be available through the links, but the author should provide more detail on any flagship users in the article itself.

The technology delivery system description is also far too detailed for the average reader. Eliminating paragraphs 4 and 5 would make the piece far more readable.

The article should stimulate K-12 teachers to broaden their view of Internet applications, but they may need a reference site for supporting an initiative at their own school.

This is a very interesting project and a good article subject.  I saw little problem with the writing itself but the article seemed short on some of the content that most interested me.  This may be a matter of personal preference but my suggestions are as follows.

Condense the information describing how the photos are taken.  It is important to know the how's but I believe this could be expressed in less space so that more can be devoted to what actually happens in the classroom.

Give more feedback on participant reaction (particularly that of teachers) and problems encountered in launching such a project.