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Mission continues

Brady Haran watches students solve a crisis on Mars

When you have spent two hours driving up the M1 from London to Leicester, what's another six months voyaging through space to Mars?

The BT Challenger Learning Centre is a unique experience designed to stimulate students' interest in maths, science and technology by simulating various space missions, such as a comet rendezvous or perilous trip to Mars.

More than 50 of these centres have been founded in honour of the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger who were killed in an explosion during lift-off in 1986. Among the victims was American high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was scheduled to give lessons from Earth orbit.

The centre at Leicester is the only one outside North America and attracts school groups from all over the country. "We like to say that the educational work we do is a continuation of that shuttle mission and the work she (Christa McAuliffe) would have done," says David Fuller, a "flight director" at the centre.

On this day, the class "voyaging to Mars" is a Year 7 group from the West London Academy Comprehensive, formerly Compton High.

Vice-principal Roger Jones says the excursion is part of a new science and technology programme being introduced at the school. "Our whole course this year is based around space," he says.

"Through the year, students will be dealing with a scenario which involves leaving Earth and starting life on Mars. They will be learning many things as part of that scenario, such as designing buggies to drive on Mars and learning about science through launching rockets."

Organising the day trip at the start of the school year is designed to "enthuse and motivate the students about space", says Roger Jones.

The centre is based in an appropriately high-tech building in the shadow of the National Space Centre's distinctive rocket tower. Two mission are run each day at 10am and 1pm.

Thirty students from West London Academy are ushered in shortly after lunch and briefed about their upcoming flight. Students are assigned jobs, such as medical officers, navigators and geologists.

After the pre-mission briefing, the group is split in two. Half of the students go into mission control - a recreation of a 1970s-style NASA control room with rows of workstations facing a bank of television monitors on a wall.

The other half of the group are taken to the Mars transporter, which acts as the space ship taking astronauts to the red planet. It bears a striking resemblance to a set from Star Trek, with students completing tasks at work stations surrounding "the bridge".

Pupils in mission control are linked to colleagues on the space ship via radio headsets and an impressive network of cameras, allowing them to watch each other work while they talk "across the void of space".

Within minutes, students became engrossed in their tasks and a real feeling of teamwork develops between them. From time to time emergencies developed, such as gas leaks and dust storms, and students work quickly under the pressure of flashing red lights and time limits.

The experience is a revealing glimpse into the realities of space travel.

It shows pupils, for example, how important it is to work together and follow rigid flight plans. While the tasks are appropriate for students, they are not "dumbed down".

This valuable educational experience helps explain why BT sponsors the centre. "Our vision is to inspire young minds," says Paul Leonard, BT's head of sponsorship. "The biggest thrill for us and the teacher is seeing less confident children blossom as a result of what they have achieved in a couple of hours in the Challenger Learning Centre."

Challenger missions last two and a half hours and are mainly aimed at key stages 2 and 3, with a variety of missions available for different age groups.

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