Ground control to Mr McKendrick

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Thomas Watson follows maths and science teachers on an inspirational journey to the Space and Rocket Center

As they dance on stage after receiving their graduation certificates, it's hard to believe that these 100 people did not know each other before arriving at Space Camp five days ago. But following intensive and inspiring space training, the teachers from 17 different countries behave like old friends and mission buddies.

We're at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the 2006 Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy programme. Maths and science teachers who have won scholarships, including four from the UK, have taken part in over 40 hours of missions, classroom courses and fun events. The aim is simple: arm the most enthusiastic teachers with stacks of space-based classroom ideas and long-term, more pupils will take an interest in engineering.

The programme, now in its third year, offers teachers the full Space Camp experience as well as a host of teaching ideas. Throughout the week, teachers are taught by advanced instructors, who advise on ideas such as turning dice into a "Martian Math" game. In addition to standard lessons, teachers also take part in a range of rocket-building classes - developing engine-powered flying machines as well as bottle rockets launched by water pressure.

But no trip to the Space and Rocket Center would be complete without a mission simulation. Split into teams, each member is given a role - pilot, capsule communicator or astronaut. "I'm the pilot," says Paul McKendrick, a maths teacher from Motherwell. "If I make a mistake, we're definitely going to crash."

The team assemble and, as we watch from the video monitors, I notice someone not dressed in the regulation blue overalls. "He programmed the mission," says instructor Leah Dawson. "He's there to make sure it doesn't get boring. If they're doing well, he'll throw in anomalies that have to be corrected." This particular mission copes well, but not all are as successful. Bob Frost, a teacher from Devon, crashes his team on landing.

Despite this setback, Mr Frost is having a great time chatting to the others about their schools and picking up ideas on how to improve teaching.

"It's amazing to speak to teachers from Romania and the US to hear how their curriculum differs from ours," he says.

Another set of teachers are doing even more exhilarating activities - six-hour missions and weightlessness training in scuba gear, for example.

These are participants in the advanced programme - 16 teachers invited back from last year. Those in this year's group can apply for the advanced course by demonstrating how they have used their Space Camp experience in the classroom. To help, the advanced teachers give a talk on their classroom activities: making spacesuits from cheap overalls, building a mission control centre and shuttle on a shoestring budget.

After graduation, some teachers go for one final moonwalk - using a bizarre seat contraption that mimics 16th gravity - or take a last turn on the gyroscope. But Honeywell saved the best till last: a talk by Story Musgrave, a 71-year-old former astronaut. After captivating tales of Nasa training, an image appears of, he casually tells us, him, 370 miles above the Earth, fixing the Hubble telescope.

As the teachers prepare for the flight home, all agree that this has been the most amazing week of their lives. Paul McKendrick sums it up: "If only I could find the money to bring my pupils here - they'd learn so much."

Honeywell Educators programme is paid for by Honeywell employees, 1,700 of whom opt to pay contributions from their salaries towards educational activities. For information on how to apply for next year's programme, go to or email

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