How to bring space into the classroom (sponsored)

By making a little space in the curriculum for, well, space, you can expand students’ scientific understanding and open up a whole galaxy of possibilities to them

Matt Pearson

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Teachers are often unhappy about the coverage some topics are afforded in the curriculum, and the one that surfaces for many science teachers is the desire to teach more about space. 

Yet, with a little imagination and use of some fantastic clips such as these from the European Space Agency (ESA), it’s possible to work in this rich and exciting setting to explore and illustrate concepts.

As a physics teacher, I’m only too aware of how obscured Newton’s first and second laws are by the interference of resistive forces (air resistance and friction) right here on Earth, inevitably leading to some students finding the laws of motion confusing and non-intuitive. Why not introduce the laws in an environment away from them and then add in the effects afterwards.

Set the scene with students: they’re an astronaut in space, why do they need to wear a pressurised suit? If they ‘shout out’ for help in space, will anyone hear them? This line of thought should lead naturally to how our daily lives on Earth would be very different without an atmosphere around us. Here is the natural lead-in to Newton’s laws of motion. If you haven’t already, watch a bowling ball and a feather dropped in a vacuum chamber.

KS3 schemes of work are typically limited in scope, often focusing on the seasons and the order and temperature of the planets in our solar system. While these are important points for students to comprehend, if we draw the line here then we are not feeding their curiosity to the fullest.

The topic of space offers fantastic opportunities to develop research, presentation, and group work skills. In our solar system alone there are volcanic moons (Io), planets where diamonds fall from the sky (Saturn, Jupiter) and a fascinating case study of a body that has been reclassified various times through history (Pluto). For an excellent introduction for anything space related, the stunning imagery in the first 20 minutes of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is sure to inspire and engage even the hardest to reach individuals.

What about a focus on leaving our planet? With commercial space travel a hot topic in recent years, ‘rocket science’ is becoming ever more present in the news and there are many exciting projects to explore with students. The mathematics behind leaving our atmosphere are explored in A-level physics courses but could be introduced at a lower level of study, and conservation of momentum-type problems are easily incorporated into GCSE-level to study how rocket propulsion systems function.

Why not get students to compare the rate at which fuel is burned during a typical rocket launch with the rate of combustion in a car engine? For a tie-in with energy transfers, demonstrate a whoosh bottle to students and link to rocket thrusters. For a more complex idea, tie in with conservation of momentum calculations and model the process as an explosion, suitable for GCSE or A level. There is plenty of footage available on the web to support a lesson like this.

Hands-on activities

More hands-on activities could involve students constructing a scale model of the solar system to illustrate the vast distances between planets or making scale models of the planets themselves to really bring the information to life and help students to better visualise? This can be especially impactful for primary level but can be made more challenging to fit at higher levels. Plasticine/modelling clay or a variety of fruits are media that I’ve seen used effectively in the past. They provide scope for introducing students to calculating the volume of three-dimensional shapes, spicing up maths lessons to ensure the accuracy of their models. I’ve often found that one of the more conceptually challenging aspects of the topic is the sheer scale of the distances between bodies in the solar system and these types of activities make abstract concepts more concrete.

World Space Week takes place in October but if you can’t wait until then, task students with designing a rocket and enter the best into one of the categories in the Design for Space Travel competition run by Airbus, being judged in July. Airbus’ Discovery Space hosts a range of resources for use during lessons too.

In November, Nasa hopes to place the InSight lander on Mars. The principal aim of this mission is to study Mars and gain a deeper understanding of the details of the processes that take place when a planet forms. Although we've been studying Earth for some time and have a good understanding of the overall progression of planet formation, the picture is complicated by seismic and volcanic activity which is not prominent on the Red Planet. Make novel use of form time by following the developments of this mission via the Nasa website. One idea could be to have a student periodically update the class on any developments from the mission.

Students revel in thinking about what it would be like to live and travel in space and Canadian astronaut commander Chris Hadfield tweets exciting material to share with students from @Cmdr_Hadfield. He has a catalogue of video clips from his most recent time on the International Space Station (ISS) between 2012 and 2013 on the Canadian Space Agency’s YouTube channel. 

He answers questions such as: “How do astronauts brush their teeth” and “what happens when you cry in space”. You can view Chris’ communications on Reddit where he often answers questions from other users about his time as an astronaut. Excellent videos from the NASA Johnson YouTube channel cover a huge range of topics from daily life on the ISS to footage and insights into rocket launches, plus details of NASA’s recent and past endeavours.

Almost every student I have ever met has an inherent curiosity about the universe beyond our everyday lives. Exploring this fascinating subject with students is rewarding and interesting, for both student and teacher.

Matt Pearson is a former head of physics in Buckinghamshire, who will be returning to teaching in September

Find more resources on aerospace exploration on Airbus’ website

Matt Pearson

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