Bringing Space into the classroom

Written by: Tom Lyons | Published:
Image: iStock

Bringing Space into the classroom can prove motivating and engaging for students of all ages. Tom Lyons offers some ideas and sign-posts activities and resources

This seems to be the year for Space, with Tim Peake’s historic launch and the recent measurement of gravitational waves.

Space is a very narrow part of the secondary curriculum but can be used as a context across many subjects – particularly when using the context of human Space flight, which opens up areas such as the effects on the human body, psychology and the opportunity for us all to observe the Earth from a different perspective.

Bringing an overarching theme of Space into the secondary classroom can be a real challenge, but there are some great resources and schemes to help you out. All of the examples in this article have come to us from secondary schools across the UK.

Get physical

At Manchester Communication Academy, students applied to join their very own “Space agency”. After submitting their application forms, students had to train like real astronauts and undertake a simulated Space flight. If you want to run something similar, the Mission X scheme provides everything you could need to get your students working like real astronauts, from exercise challenges, to nutrition.

Doing the maths

Whether it is working out the angle that Soyuz capsules need to leave Earth to meet up with the International Space Station or calculating the internal surface area of a rocket engine – mathematics is central to Space travel.

Code your way to Space

Astro Pi was a great competition, where students could design code to run specially adapted Raspberry Pi devices on board the International Space Station. Although the competition is over, the devices are now live in Space – and data is being sent down for schools to us. Follow the two Astro Pi’s, Ed (@astro_pi_vis) and Izzy (@astro_pi_ir), on Twitter for updates, and get your students programming MP3 players or creating music with the 2016 Astro Pi coding challenge.

Get creative

From designing rockets and Space suits and testing the resilience of materials in extreme conditions to trouble shooting engineering solutions – there are many ways to engage students with Space in design and technology.

Astronauts have to be excellent plumbers and electricians in a pinch – as well as scientists and human guinea pigs. Why not challenge students to fix an air leak using a bag of “spare parts”?

Or, in food technology, students could design a balanced and nutrient-dense meal plan for astronauts on a six-month flight. Newham Sixth Form College created an exhibition on The Kepler mission, including building a scale model, projecting videos and images and showcased it in their school hall. They linked the multimedia exhibition with science talks held at the opening of the exhibition, to engage the school in the science behind the mission.

Going beyond

Getting out of the classroom can be tricky, but is definitely worth it. Tapton School took their students to the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre in Cheshire and to the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham.

Newham Sixth Form ran a “Space hunt” in a museum, with students challenged to find a list of obscure Space-related objects. Manchester Communication Academy ran a collaborative project with the European Space Agency and took 20 year 8 students to the European Space Technology and Research Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. The students worked with real engineers to design, build and run micro-gravity experiments.

Dixie Grammar took their students to the National Space Centre in Leicester. They assigned students roles in mission control and aboard the Space craft, such as navigator, remote scientist, communications and Space probe technician and they completed a series of simulation challenges.

They also visited the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, liaising with the education department for NASA employees to give practical demonstrations on aspects of Space science such as materials for the Space shuttle, the effects of pressure, working and living in Space as well as history of Space flight.

Take a day

Running a whole school or whole year group initiative, such as a STEM day, can be a wonderful opportunity to engage with a topic more deeply. Chipping Camden School runs a STEM day every year, with the whole of year 8 off timetable.

They focused one around the theme of stars – bringing in a stardome for students to explore the universe in 3D and learn about the life of a star. Engaging with national events, such as British Science Week (March 11 to 20) or the BBC’s Stargazing Live, can be a good way to get your students excited at being part of a national event. Ashington Learning Partnership ran an afternoon of events around the Philae lander’s touchdown in 2014 – why not plan an event around Tim Peake’s landing?

Look to the stars

Many of the schools we work with have astronomy clubs. These can involve both students and parents, and are a great way to engage the whole school community.

With lectures, and special events around significant astronomical events (such as the recent eclipse or meteorite showers), the clubs offer an opportunity to be flexible outside of the usual timetabled school day.
Universities are often very keen to engage in outreach, and many schools had asked professors to come and offer guest lectures on a huge range of subjects, from astrophysics to Space exploration.

Get inspired

There are lots of places to get ideas – whether it is on Twitter, through the Principia website which links to the latest activities around Tim Peake’s mission or through the ESERO-UK website – packed with ideas and suggestions from our vibrant online teacher community group.

There are some fantastic competitions to get your students engaged with – from building a satellite in a can (the European Space Agency’s CanSat competition) to creating a film (Into Film will be showing six young film-makers’ work to Tim Peake in Space in the coming months).


So what are you waiting for? By liaising with colleagues across different departments, you could create an incredible and immersive learning experience for students across your school.

  • Tom Lyons is a teacher Fellow for ESERO-UK, the UK Space education resource office, based at the National STEM Learning Centre in York.

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