Give engineering lift-off in space-themed lessons

One head of creative arts shares his tried and tested space-themed activities to breathe new life into design and engineering
Use Space To Engage Students In Engineering

Humans are inquisitive. We have explored much of our planet, and naturally want to travel into space and discover new worlds. As technology advances, we get closer and closer to the time when space travel and exploration, perhaps even the colonisation of other planets, will become the norm. It may still be a way off at the moment, but by using these ideas as the basis for classroom projects, we can make our lessons more exciting, engaging and inspirational. Here are a few ways to bring space-themed engineering to your classroom:

Sketch the spacesuit of the future

The modern spacesuit looks pretty similar to the one used 50 years ago, but what could the spacesuit of the future look like, especially if it had to be worn every day? With companies like Virgin Galactic already developing suborbital flights, these could soon become as commonplace as taking an aeroplane, but we will need to have the right protective clothing.

Students can analyse modern advances in materials such as plastics, smart textiles and graphene, and consider what is required of a spacesuit. They could create designs that incorporate the latest textiles, which have been engineered to provide a variety of benefits from insulation and conductivity to being self-cleaning and self-healing.

Rise of the robot explorers

Before we send humans to other planets, we are sending probes and explorer robots to check that the terrain and atmosphere can sustain human life. You could get your students to design a robot or other intelligent probe to explore other planets, considering how it will get there and operate once it does. How will it move and be powered? How will it interact with the environment and feed information back? Students can design their ideas using sketching and modelling then produce a model with computer-aided design, which can then be animated and tested.

You could also build a working electronic robot, with real sensors. This is an ideal opportunity to look at mechanisms, electronics and systems and to inspire creative ideas, even in very young budding engineers. For those who want to go the extra mile, there are opportunities for coding, to enable the robot to respond to commands or to operate autonomously.

Explore aerodynamics

Objects moving through space need to be aerodynamic to achieve their escape velocity and fly safely back to Earth. Get your students to consider the factors related to leaving our atmosphere, landing on another planet and then making the return trip. The space shuttle is a good example of a craft that needs to move through space but also Earth's atmosphere; get your students up to speed on forces and the principles of flight with this guide from Nasa.

Aerodynamics are an important part of engineering any method of transport so, while students are designing objects to move through space, they will also learn about improving the efficiency of the vehicles we use on Earth. You can get them started with this refresher on how aerodynamics affect aircraft.

Space-themed engineering projects

Dream up space structures

Architects use complex structures to make functional and attractive buildings, but how would these translate into space? Get your students to consider the exciting new structures they could design when free from the atmosphere and gravity of Earth. Show them the kind of modern, generative designs that we don't usually see in in towns and cities; these alien-looking structures that offer improved strength but may actually use less materials. Likewise, give them a look at some buildings that appear futuristic and wouldn't look out of place on other planets.

Buildings for other planets will need to be designed to be constructed from flat-panel components, which are easier to transport on a spacecraft. Students will need to make sure they are strong enough to house humans but light enough to be easily transported. If we are to colonise other planets, then strong, lightweight and portable structures won't be a luxury, they will be a necessity.

Launch into lift-off

If there is one space-themed activity guaranteed to engage students, it's the idea of lift-off. After all, who doesn't like rockets? The maths and science behind launching an object into space are fascinating, and offer cross-curricular links with a variety of subjects.

Get students to research how much power is needed for lift-off, what speed you need to break through the atmosphere, and how orbits and trajectories work. Armed with this information, they can design and make their own water- or air-powered rockets to test on the school field. They may not quite make it into space, but the science and engineering remain the same.


And there's much more that can be covered in this activity, from the design aesthetic of the rocket, to the spatial considerations of accommodating humans as they travel through space.

Space will inevitably be an important aspect of our future. Our population is growing and consuming more natural resources than we can sustain, and we have damaged our environment and ecosystem, possibly beyond repair. Space offers the hope of other planets, and, perhaps more importantly, it gives us cause to reflect on the damage we have done to the Earth and how we can take steps to fix it.

We may not be able to travel into space in our lessons just yet, but these very real space-themed activities can be used to inspire your students and breathe new life into your teaching of design and engineering. Together, the challenges of exploring and living in space, and the technology behind modern engineering, can provide a stimulating and exciting programme of learning that will inspire the young designers and engineers who will shape our futures.

Paul Woodward is the head of creative arts at a large independent school in the north of England. He has taught and led D&T in a variety of schools as well as working as a designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant

Find a host of exciting resources on aerospace exploration to inspire your students on the Airbus website