Putting a rocket under students' ambitions in life

Summer programme shows pupils the possibilities of space

"Being an astronaut is a job like no other. A bit like a gobstopper, the further you get into it, the better it gets."

This summed up one group of pupils' feelings about a career in space after watching footage of real-life astronauts demonstrating the joys that a gravity-free workplace can bring - such as racing each other to catch Mamp;Ms in their mouths.

The presentation about life off Earth was being given by former Nasa space shuttle commander Ken Ham at Scotland's first Nasa "space school".

The week-long Mission Discovery programme at Paisley Town Hall attracted 200 young people from S3 upwards, eager to devote part of their summer holiday to learning more about space. They worked with astronauts and rocket scientists to devise experiments that could revolutionise life on Earth and beyond. The winning experiment will be run by scientists on the International Space Station (ISS).

Educational institutions, the council and business leaders saw the project as a pioneering way to boost skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem).

The participants were divided into groups, with university and college students mentoring pupils as they pondered what the most useful experiments would be. The winning experiment must fit into a box measuring just 10cm x 10cm x 5cm. And it has to be as cheap as possible, because simply sending it into space will cost a five-figure sum.

Speaking as his team began debating options, 16-year-old John Martin of Gleniffer High School in Paisley said: "I don't know if my idea is something that's possible, or if it's too expensive, but I've been thinking about an experiment to deactivate HIV and reprogram the virus to attack cancer cells."

It was definitely ambitious, a trait that founder Chris Barber said had not been lacking since he started Mission Discovery four years ago. It has since been run in England, the US and Australia.

"These boys and girls are coming up with things which have not been done before, or are innovations of things which have - ideas which the best minds on the planet have not come up with in more than 50 years of space travel," Mr Barber said.

The programme had not yet yielded a major breakthrough, but a recent project looking at whether antibiotics were more effective in space had the potential for further testing, he added.

The Nasa footage highlighted the gender imbalance in Stem and space travel, with only one woman among the astronauts. However, boys and girls were equally represented at the Mission Discovery programme.

Emma Middleton, 16, from Gryffe High School in Houston, Renfrewshire, said: "I'm very interested in science, it's in my family. It's been really good to hear about all the other people involved in space, as well as astronauts, like the scientists and the trainers. I am interested in a career in science and this has made me think I might try engineering, too."

Renfrewshire Council jointly funded the pound;54,000 cost of the programme with the University of the West of Scotland and West College Scotland. The council now plans to run it annually alongside Renfrewshire Chamber of Commerce, which also supports the initiative.

Robert Naylor, the council's director of education, said: "We're hoping that this will invigorate our focus on Stem. This was open to all children who studied maths and one other science to stimulate interest in science and technology.

"We want them to understand that these subjects open up all kinds of career pathways, including space. They will also gain life skills and the confidence to take them into the job market."

Bob Davidson, chief executive of Renfrewshire Chamber of Commerce, said: "Having seen at first hand the energy and passion from Ken and Michelle Ham [his wife and a former astronaut trainer], combined with the chance to design an experiment that will go up to the ISS - Mission Discovery is quite simply amazing."

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