The prince, the astronomer and the little green men

Royal-backed course aims to inspire maths and science teachers

Irena Barker

Maths and science teachers attending one of the many weekend training courses backed by Prince Charles have learned to expect a stimulating couple of days improving their subject knowledge.

What they might not expect is the Queen's personal astronomer taking them on a space voyage in search of aliens. Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, will tell participants on a Prince's Teaching Institute residential course, marking the organisation's 10th anniversary, how the potential for finding extraterrestrial life forms has grown as new planets are discovered.

"Perhaps we'll one day detect a signal from space that's clearly artificial," he will say tomorrow, in a wide-ranging keynote address about the origins and future of the Universe. "Even if it's very boring - a list of prime numbers or the digits of pi - it would carry the momentous message that concepts of logic and physics aren't limited to the hardware of human skulls."

He will also say that humans and aliens sending signals would "share a common culture".

"Even if the aliens live on planet Zog and have seven tentacles, they'd be made out of the same atoms as us. They'd gaze out, if they had eyes, at the same cosmos as us. They'd trace their origins back to the same Big Bang."

But there would be "no scope for snappy repartee", he will say, as the signals would take many years to reach us.

Lord Rees - a professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge - will also outline his concerns for the future of education in science and technology.

Once, children could take apart clocks and radios and find out about how they worked by putting them back together again, but new digital gadgets are just "baffling black boxes", he will say. "The extreme sophistication of modern, ironically, an impediment to engaging young people with basics - with learning how things work."

He will also praise the success of prominent TV scientists such as Professor Brian Cox in increasing interest in science, but he will argue that the "suboptimal" teaching of science in schools must not lead to children's natural curiosity being "stifled".

Lord Rees will be among a coterie of high-profile speakers at this weekend's event - designed to inspire maths and science teachers and help them to improve subject knowledge.

The 80 delegates will also hear from the current director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, Professor Celia Hoyles. Her presentation aims to help teachers convey the importance of mathematical generalisations and patterns to their pupils, who are often more concerned simply with "finding the right answer to a problem", she said.

The Prince's Teaching Institute emerged from a series of summer schools for state school teachers launched by Prince Charles in 2002. They are now held twice a year for English, history and geography, maths and science and modern foreign languages. The institute estimates that 3,300 teachers from 1,025 schools have attended the summer schools and other training events.

"The very positive response of thousands of teachers shows there is a genuine thirst for the sort of subject-based training that is at the heart of these courses," Prince Charles said in his foreword to the event's programme.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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