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Take an online voyage to outer space. Douglas Blane reports

In the little village school at the foot of Ben Sheann the pupils have just asked a scientist 50 miles away in the Glasgow Science Centre a tricky question: "What happens if you fall into a black hole?"

The pupils at Strathyre Primary School watch Dr Leigh Fish think for a moment then he says: "Well, first you get stretched by the enormous gravity. Really stretched - you could end up 200 miles long."

"Cool!" says young Steven. "Shhh!" cautions a teacher. "Everybody can hear you."

Such appeal is something that Learning and Teaching Scotland, the body set up by the Scottish Executive to provide curriculum guidance and ICT expertise, has been exploiting with their online learning events, and "Ticket to Space" is the latest and most ambitious.

Last October, pupils at more than 70 schools entered the virtual space school as raw recruits. They returned to Earth on December 20 just in time to graduate before Christmas.

In those eight weeks the space cadets had learned about their own planet and others. Around the central theme, LTScotland and the Glasgow Science Centre have added a set of online activities and offline lessons which schools can access freely through the project website.

These extend pupils' knowledge and challenge their preconceptions.

Strathyre's headteacher Anne Comrie says: "Earth and space is part of the curriculum where kids do have a lot of preconceptions. To be honest, so do some teachers. One week, for example, we looked at temperature and the greenhouse effect and I was very surprised on doing an experiment to find that boiling water cooled 40 LESS THAN C in 10 minutes. We have a thermometer outside our window now that's telling us it's - 3 LESS THAN C in the morning, so the kids can relate that to the temperatures they've learned about on other planets."

There are a number of advantages to using the new resources, say the teachers. As a teaching head, Ms Comrie is keenly aware of time: "This has been one area of the curriculum I didn't have to sit down and plan this term. It was all done for me. On Sunday night I just looked at the online resources and downloaded any materials we needed for the week. The kids learned a lot but the single biggest benefit for me was the time saved in lesson preparation."

Her colleague Bernie McDonald found the practical activities and investigations especially valuable. "They really brought home to the children difficult concepts like distance, speed, temperature, powerI In one online activity the children zoomed into a planet and travelled around it. They found that fascinating. Instead of the teacher trying to explain about orbits they could see them and grasp the idea right away. " "Ticket to Space" begins by taking pupils back to a Stone Age campfire on a frosty night where hunters are telling tall tales under the stars: "The head of the group should begin to muse about the night sky: Why the day changes from darkness to light. What the bright lights twinkling in the sky are."

In these introductory activities the pupils use drama and role-play to explore pre-scientific ideas and confront their own misconceptions. By the end of the first week, having travelled in time from the Stone Age to today, the pupils have gained the knowledge they need to travel in space.

During the second week, they work in groups to make models of the solar system out of ping-pong balls, melons, oranges, peas, peppercorns and, in one case, a nearby empty field, using information on the net.

In each of the following weeks the focus of the online activities is an interactive animation designed by LTScotland and accessed through its Pioneer learning environment. These include a fly-past of all the planets in the solar system, the design and testing of a planetary probe, a model of the main influences on planetary temperatures, and a simulation of the solar system.

Offline activities, for which lessons plans, resource lists and background information are provided, include making balloon rockets, designing and testing planetary probes, exploring the greenhouse effect on different planets, and graduating from Space School with a leaving certificate.

Throughout the project, moderated forums allow pupils and teachers to share their thoughts, feelings and discoveries with colleagues at other schools.

Strathyre's main claim to fame until now has been that it is in the heart of Rob Roy country, and the famous outlaw once walked the surrounding hills and hid in the rocks from pursuing Redcoats.

Now visitors to the school's might hear about more universal matters. "I want to go on the first mission to Mars or be the first child in space," says Steven. Georgina is even more ambitious: "I'd like to land on Saturn - it's my favourite planet."

Others are more circumspect: "I want to do something in space but I'm a bit scared of asteroids and comets so I'd like to be an astronomer," says Harriet. A little of the space magic has even rubbed off on the teachers:

"Our children always enjoyed space projects," says Ms Comrie, "but I never did. This time though, because 'Ticket to Space" provided all this structured material, I have even learned a lot myself." Ticket to Space has now closed for registration but schools can still access the materials. Contact Sheila MacNeill or Martin Jack,Tel: 0141 337 51385073Email:


"Ticket to Space" is the first LTScotland online event to tackle science explicitly. Earlier events included a re-enactment of the Treaty of Versailles, a dramatisation of an oil spill at sea and an exploration of the environmental impact of human activities. It is intended that all these will become annual events. There will be a specific period each year when registered schools anywhere in the world will be able to exchange emails, meet online in forums and chatrooms and consult subject specialists and ICT experts provided by LTScotland.

Outside this period, all the "Ticket to Space" materials will remain available to teachers. Produced jointly by a former headteacher and a scientist at the Glasgow Science Centre, these teacher guides, lessons plans and online animations constitute a tremendous resource. Explanations are clear and concise, activities imaginative, lessons well-structured and progressive and the background information an invaluable crib-sheet for those whose astronomy is rusty.

"Ticket to Space" has been designed for the Scottish education system, so explicit reference is made to 5-14 curriculum links in science, technology and ICT. The materials are equally valuable to teachers in England and Wales. The scientific enquiry skills in the curriculum - ideas and evidence, investigative skills, planning - are all tackled at a key stage 2 level.

Useful websites

A directory of UK astronomy

BBC Learning website with planet statistics, models of the solar system etc www.open2.netsciencefinalfrontier Overview of NASA educational resources http:spacelink.nasa.govInstructional.MaterialsNASA.Educational.Products NASA online education resources, useful for locating topics on NASA's vast website http:core.nasa.govolr.html

Collection of Hubble Space Telescope images http:oposite.stsci.edupubinfoHardCopy.html

Calendar of meteor showers and moon phase calculator http:Comets.amsmeteors.orgmeteorscalendar.html

News about space exploration. Star maps updated monthly. www.skymaps.comdownloads.html

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