Inspiring Space

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The European Space Agency Teacher Workshop provides an inspiring atmosphere for teachers to develop their practice. Christopher Beard explains some of the tips he picked up.

Last month saw a car-sized robot reaching the end of a 570 million-kilometre journey. Quoted as the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of planetary exploration, the Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the surface of the red planet.

Sending pictures to Earth within minutes, tweeting its progress at every step and even beaming back Will.i.am’s Reach for the Stars, the first music broadcast to Earth from another planet, this mission is already bringing Space exploration into the modern age.

Throughout all of these events I couldn’t help casting my mind back to a workshop delivered by Anu Ojha, director of the National Space Academy (UK) and one of his opening lines: “The astronauts that will take humanity to Mars are currently sat in our classrooms.”

ESA Teacher Workshop 2012

The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to Space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s Space capability and ensure that investment in Space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world. 

ESA is committed to education and outreach and readily states that this is one of its most important programs. Without education there will not be the scientists, engineers, technicians, mathematicians and astronauts to take us further into Space.

Space agencies across the world are currently noticing the effects of a decline in students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related subjects in further education and this is causing concern. A large part of ESA’s education programme is about encouraging students to study in these areas and not just Space science.

In June 2012 teachers from across Europe met with some of the world’s leading Space scientists at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. 

The ESA Teacher Workshop 2012 was spread over four days and included tours of their facilities and a range of classroom-based teacher workshops. These were delivered by a range of professionals including ESA Space scientists and experienced Space science teachers.

After a busy first day of introductions, guided tours, timetables and information packs I was sat in the lecture theatre eagerly awaiting the keynote speaker, Christer Fuglesang. A former ESA astronaut, he flew on two Space shuttle missions and spent over 31 hours completing extra vehicular activities (Space walks to us uninitiated).

He began to tell us about his life and career. Sitting there, listening to his stories, his descriptions of Space flight and what it feels like to be in a zero gravity environment, looking at photographs and videos from the International Space Station, I was suddenly taken back to my childhood – I remembered my wonder and amazement of Space exploration and how that had captivated me and propelled me to study sciences.

Lesson ideas

Space is an amazing hook and can be used to inspire and engage students and drive them to take their learning further. At Manchester Communication Academy, we currently deliver the entire year 8 curriculum through a Space-related story and theme. This is easily applied and has clearly inspired our students, generating a higher interest in wide range of topics.

At the workshop I discovered a wealth of information, resources and ideas to use in our classrooms and laboratories. The following is only a brief guide to a handful of ideas, activities and resources. More information can be found on the websites at the end. 

  • One resource that never fails to amaze me is the ambassadors who work in these professions. The enthusiasm and commitment displayed by the scientists and teachers I have met is endless. I would highly recommend getting in touch with your local university, STEM ambassadors and local astronomy club to bring in professionals to work with your students. 

  • If you can get hold of dry ice then prepare to amaze your students. Following the Comet Recipe you can mix some simple ingredients from your kitchen cupboard and prep room to create a Harry Potter moment in your laboratory. Creating a reacting model of a comet you really get the wow factor (have a look at the videos on YouTube). This can be used to help teach anything from sublimation to gravitational orbits. If you are struggling to get hold of dry ice, try your local university or catering company.

  • With a small syringe, a marshmallow and some just-boiled water you can quickly show the effects of a change in pressure on the human body and the boiling point of water both of which can be related to Space and fit into the curriculum. 

  • NASA and ESA have also produced a series of YouTube clips called Science Under Pressure which were filmed as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. Missions to the Moon and Mars are the perfect backdrop for any science topic and can especially link with chemistry and biology. You can get students to investigate soil samples looking for life and to study the effects of a new environment. 

  • Taking your classroom into Space provides the opportunity for you to carry out an experiment in the classroom and then watch video clips of the same experiment being carried out the on the International Space Station. Some kits can be ordered from ESA so that you can use the same equipment as the astronauts. There are some excellent curriculum links for key stages 3 and 4. 

  • ESA produces an International Space Station Education Kit for both primary and secondary. Both can be accessed online or ordered in hard copy through the ESA education resources website. These kits contain a wealth of worksheets, posters, pictures, lessons and activities that can be used across the curriculum.

  • Through linking up with your local Amateur Radio Club you can sign up to join the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station. This programme allows your students, with a little help, to use amateur radios to make contact with and talk to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

  • Space camps and “astronaut training programmes” are a great way to run short projects to motivate and inspire students. The topics of each program can be tailored to your needs either following the curriculum or as an extended learning activity. 

  • ESA’s Eduspace provides access to a wealth of resources of Earth observation. Students can access and manipulate real satellite imagery. This can be used to teach wide range of subjects including looking at the effects of climate change and deforestation. ESA also produces a School Atlas which can be ordered online. This provides a variety of resources and activities.

The future?

Our job of engaging and inspiring students in the classroom is getting harder and harder especially within the STEM subjects. Space exploration is still one of the greatest hooks. As we move towards the next step in human Space exploration the need to bring Space into our classrooms grows deeper every day.

Websites and resources
CAPTION: Inspirational classroom: The learning environment at the European Space Agency’s centre in The Netherlands; the decompression of a marshmallow.


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