Astronauts in outer space teaching students science: comparing Chinese and American implementations of space-to-earth virtual classrooms

The purpose of this study was to investigate differences between science lessons taught by Chinese astronauts in a space shuttle and those taught by American astronauts in a space shuttle, both of whom conducted experiments and demonstrations of science activities in a microgravity space environment. The study examined the instructional structure and science topics coverage, as well as the methods employed for helping students conceptualize scientific laws via experimental demonstrations and activities. The analysis of the lessons sampled in this study revealed three predominant themes for how both the Chinese and the American astronauts conceptualized the science topics (i.e., Health and Life in Space, Work and Career in Space, and Exploration in Space and Earth Science). The analysis also examined how the teacher-student interactions were structured. Research findings suggest that under the appropriate conditions informal science education can play a distinct role in providing students with experiences of: (a) experiments unavailable in classroom settings, and (b) explanations of these experiments by field-based scientists conducting original research.